By Rick Kaempfer
This past week I was very excited to attend a dinner hosted by the Archdiocese. It was held to honor teens in the Chicago area, including my son Tommy who was given an award for "outstanding service, dedication, and faithfulness to the Church in the area of Community Service and Social Justice".
I was so proud of Tommy. He's a good kid that doesn't often get recognized for being good--this was an award for volunteering at the local soup kitchen the past four years. He wasn't doing that to be recognized, he just likes to help, which I suppose is why he was given the award.
The award was given to the kids by the Bishop of our Vicariate, who is fairly well known in our area, although not quite as well known as the Cardinal.
I've never met Cardinal George, but I did meet his predecessor Cardinal Bernadin three times during his years in Chicago. People who know me well might be surprised by this because I'm not exactly the most devout sheep in the flock, and I'm slightly jaded when it comes to meeting more traditional celebrities, but each time I met Cardinal Bernadin, it had an impact on me.
The first time was at a church dinner at St. Constance church on the northwest side of Chicago in 1983. My grandmother went to that church and when she heard that Cardinal Bernardin was coming, she was beside herself with excitement.
When she “invited” us to come, we knew it wasn’t one of those “come if you can make it” moments. It was more like an order. I was 20 years old at the time, attending college in Champaign, and let’s just say I wasn’t exactly thrilled to drive three hours to attend this dinner.
Cardinal Bernardin made his way around the hall, making a special point of talking to every table. When he came to ours, he stood behind me and put his hand on my shoulder as he spoke in his calm and gentle voice to my grandmother.
I have never seen her more excited in her entire life.
I know this is going to sound strange, but that moment in time is forever frozen in my memory. I can still see my grandmother's excited face, and I can still feel Cardinal Bernardin’s hand on my shoulder--I felt a presence of some kind at that moment. A warmth. A feeling of calm. Peace.
I know it’s odd. But I swear it’s true.
Ten years after that first meeting, I became Cardinal Bernardin’s neighbor. My wife and I lived almost exactly equidistant from the holiness of the Cardinal’s mansion and the debauchery of Rush & Division streets.
One morning I was returning from an overnight shift at the radio station that employed me at the time, and the Cardinal was out for an early morning walk. Instead of waving as I did the first few times I saw him in the neighborhood, I walked up and shook his hand. My grandmother had recently passed away, and I told him how much it meant to her to meet him that day. He smiled and thanked me. I know this is going to sound strange, but I felt that same warmth when we shook hands that morning. The same peace.
The third and final time I saw him was at O’Hare airport, a year or so before he died. He was waiting to check his baggage, and my wife and I were rushing toward our gate. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted him as we walked by (the red beanie was always a giveaway).
“There’s Cardinal Bernardin,” I said to my wife, who had never met him.
“WHERE?” she asked, turning around.
When I pointed him out to her, she was barely able to contain her exuberance.
“Cardinal Bernardin!” she called out.
He turned around and smiled. “Yes, hello.”
She smiled back at him and stared for a moment, not knowing exactly what to say, before she shook his hand and said: “I’m your biggest fan!”
And she meant it too.
I don't know if Cardinal George has the same impact on his flock. I have a feeling he doesn't. When I watch him on television, or hear him espousing some of his political views (The Gay Rights movement is like the KKK?), I cringe. Maybe my opinion of him would change if I met him in person. I do agree with him on other issues (for instance, he's a Cubs fan).
But I also think it's probably not fair to compare him to Cardinal Bernadin. Cardinal Bernadin was a very special man. Maybe the kind of man that comes around only once in a lifetime.
I feel privileged to have met him.