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Bernardin, a snowy night and real compassion

Joseph Cardinal Bernardtalks mediafter presiding over opening mass for Knights Columbus convention.  neg#96-08-087  Phoby Brian Jackson

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin talks to the media after presiding over the opening mass for the Knights of Columbus convention. neg#96-08-087 Photo by Brian Jackson

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Updated: December 30, 2013 11:24AM

On a bitter cold night on the last day of 1982, the Sun-Times sent a young new reporter to the West Side to write about a New Year’s Eve charity dinner for the poor.

Archbishop Joseph Bernardin — new to town and not yet a cardinal — was there, walking outdoors along a line of men and women who scrunched up against the falling snow. The archbishop held their hands and bent his head to talk with them softly.

The reporter loved his job. He got to wear a trench coat like in the movies. If he got some good quotes, with color and pathos, he could make the front page.

“So, archbishop,” the reporter asked, “why are you out here tonight?”

“We middle-class people don’t really know how good we have it until we see something like this,” Bernardin replied.

The reporter looked down at his notebook and wrote.

“This is just a token of what we should be doing for the poor,” Bernardin added.

The reporter wrote that down, too, and was entirely focused on his notebook when a hand came into his field of vision. The hand — Bernardin’s hand — covered the notebook and stilled the pen.

The reporter looked up.

“I mean this,” Bernardin said, looking the reporter in the eye.

We should all be so lucky as that reporter on that night 31 years ago. We should be lucky enough to be reminded, time and again, that real compassion comes from a place deep within us, not from a socially imposed sense of obligation. And when we stop to consider and appreciate our good fortune, as we do every Thanksgiving, we should remember we have a responsibility to serve and care for those who are not so blessed, whose fortune is not as good. That, of course, is the first tenet of every great religion and every great society.

But helping those less fortunate, as Pope Francis said this week, demands more than “a simple welfare mentality.” It is not enough to provide homeless shelters and food stamps or a charity dinner on New Year’s Eve. At the heart of the matter, as the pope said, is the need to “attack the structural causes of inequality.”

In Chicago, we believe, that begins with working for — and paying for — better schools and safer neighborhoods and better-paying jobs that allow parents to do well by their children. These are precisely the sorts of early advantages that the average rich man in this town grew up with, giving him a jump up in the race, though he may prefer to credit his own hard work for every dime he has made.

Nonetheless, because the simple act of giving remains honorable and necessary, we’d like to suggest three excellent causes that could use your help this holiday season:

To help the hundreds of thousands of victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, donations can be made to:

† American Red Cross,, (800) 733-2767; CARE International,, (800) 422-7385; Catholic Relief Services,, (877) 435-7277; Christian Aid., (434) 977-5650.

† Doctors Without Borders,; Jewish Federation Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund,, (312) 444-2869; Lutheran World Relief,, (800) 597-5972; Oxfam,, (800) 776-9326.

† Save the Children,, (800) 728-3843; UNICEF,, (800) 367-5437; World Food Program USA,, (202) 747-0722; and World Vision,, (888) 511-6548.

To help the victims of the tornado that ripped up the small Downstate Illinois city of Washington, donations can be made to:

† The Washington Tornado Relief Fund at the Morton Community Bank, 721 W. Jackson St., Morton, IL 61550.

And to help the needy here in the Chicago area, the Greater Chicago Food Depository — a group whose remarkable efforts we will be writing more about shortly — is collecting shelf-stable food items at more than 125 downtown office buildings, banks, grocery stores and parking garages. To make a financial contribution, go to or call 773/247-3663.

By the way, the young reporter made the front page. The story could have been better, but it was a slow news day.

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