kennedy_pope_0826 “A great Irish chieftain has passed.” That line from Niall O’Dowd of Irish Central, is my favorite of the recent salutes to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Chieftain implies courage, passion, ferocity in the face of poor odds. Great victories and breast-beating cries for forgiveness on a grand stage. Ribaldry and tenderness in extremis. Theatricality with brains, as Doug Cumming said of the late Bill Emerson.

So it was no surprise that a dying U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote a letter to Pope Benedict. He exercised a privilege well earned. What was sad, even a little heartbreaking, was that he did not receive a personal reply from the Pope – just third-person assurances of papal “concern” and “spiritual closeness.”

Alas, religion, too, is mere human enterprise, and in various expressions of itself, slower to evolve than many, if not most, other species on earth.

“The elephant in the room,” of course, is abortion, as bluntly put it, accompanied by the lesser sins of gay rights to marriage and embryonic stem cell research. So the brother of the first U.S. Catholic president, who received his first communion from Pope Pius XII, and who championed the causes of human rights, elimination of poverty and healthcare for everyone – issues keenly and majestically articulated in Benedict’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate – did not merit a note card of sympathy.

Thankfully, the parish priests who proceeded with grace and empathy through the wake and the rites of the funeral mass proved that the Church has a pulse. As did the Rev. Patrick Tarrant, who was called to the senator’s bedside in the final hours.

”I have been a priest for 56 years and I would say that rarely have I seen such a devout, prayerful family after the death of his sister and his own death,” he said, describing how a large group of family members were gathered around Kennedy.

“They were aware that for the very sick the sense of hearing is the last to go, so whatever is said around the sickbed is always heard by the patient, which is good to keep in mind, and they were very well aware of it. They let him know how much he was loved and cared for and missed and it was quite an experience.”

Needless to say, the Vatican – and The Catholic League’s grim reaper, Bill Donohue – have not heard the last from the Kennedys. Nor has the unidentified “Vatican official” quoted by Time Magazine, “why would [Sen. Kennedy] even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium… .” And added, “Here in Rome, Ted Kennedy is nobody.”

For example, Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s activist daughter, Kerry, who relates how she spoke boldly to the Pope when she got the chance. Kerry Kennedy, who has a bestseller, Being Catholic Now, told the Web site Irish Central, “As an adult, I, like so many of my peers, have asked tough questions about what it means to be Catholic today. Such as, what do I want to pass on to my kids, what is and is not sacrosanct?”

Her involvement in the war on AIDS on the African continent led her to the recognition that a word from the Church on the use of condoms could save millions of lives.

When visiting the Vatican with a group, she said to Pope Benedict, “Your Eminence, in view of the tragedy unfolding in Africa, for the sake of the sanctity of life, would you consider changing the church’s position on the use of condoms?”

The Pope reportedly gazed back at her serenely, saying only, “God bless you,” as he passed.

Says Kerry Kennedy, “The Catholic Church is one of the largest organizations ministering to people with AIDS in Africa, but I just felt it was the right thing to do to speak up. In April the Pope publicly announced that he had asked a group of bishops to review the church’s position on the use of condoms by people living with AIDS. I was very happy to see that.

“As Pope Benedict said when he came to the U.S. a few months ago, one of the pillars of Catholicism is the search for the truth – and if you’re searching for the truth you’re going to have conflict. You can have conflict with the institution without abandoning it,” she said.

In that spirit, wouldn’t it have been something if President Obama had appointed Caroline Kennedy to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Photo: As a child, Ted Kennedy stands in front of his father Joseph during a Kennedy family visit with Pope Pius XII in 1939.

AP’s excerpts from Ted Kennedy’s letter to the Pope and message back:

From Irish Central:


Dallas Lee

Dallas Lee, former writer and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired as a speechwriter from Bank of America. He is author of The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row 1971).

  1. As a Catholic who opposes abortion, I didn’t agree with Ted Kennedy’s support of it, but understood the dilemma. This beautiful essay speaks to the heart of the dilemma, in the author’s amazing, poetic prose but with clarity and concision as well. I feel privileged to have read it.

  2. beautifully written, dallas
    you capture the sense of frustration felt by many of kerry kennedy’s peers (and tho older than she, i count myself among them) about the sad ways the church doesn’t act (condom use) and ways it does (that tepid impersonal response to kennedy’s deathbed note). thank heavens, as you note, the local church reps were more engaged: “Thankfully, the parish priests who with grace and empathy through the wake and the rites of the funeral mass proved that the Church has a pulse.” that has been my lifelong experience with the church of my forefathers: face to face, person to person, is often the only way to glimpse its best self.

  3. President Obama at Notre Dame University’s commencement, expressed thoughts that the Pope could have built on in a reply to Sen. Kennedy. Obama spoke of irreconcilable differences, but also said those on each side of the debate “can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions … So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”

  4. Terri Evans

    Hear, Hear, Dallas for your piece (and peace), and also your comment.

  5. The brilliance of this piece is that, whether a diehard Kennedy supporter or his harshest critic, you would be happy to frame it and hang it on a wall.
    The irony is so rich it borders on breathtaking.
    A man born into extraordinary wealth and privilege uses the President of the United States as his personal messenger, following the pattern of his life to jump to the head of the line for special favor. And, somehow, he was exercising “a privilege well earned.” Really? Well earned?
    Sure, this was a champion of the poor and a voice for the common people. Of course, it is not so hard to be an outspoken advocate when it costs you nothing. I believe there is something in the Bible about that.
    It was neither sad nor “a little heartbreaking” that Kennedy did not receive a personal reply from the Pope. Of course, after reading this piece, I am left wondering why Kennedy sought the prayers and blessing of the Pope when, clearly, it should have been the Pope seeking his blessing.

  6. Keith Graham

    This piece is brilliant. Good and thoughtful people are divided about abortion. If people say they are anti-abortion and want to criticize Ted Kennedy’s record, that is an argument with some logic. However, if people say they are pro-life and want to criticize the senator’s overall record, I have to wonder about what sort of life they support. As Dallas makes clear, Kennedy championed most of the kinds of issues the pope raised in his Caritas in Veritate. Whether Kennedy was personally flawed or not really isn’t the issue. Who isn’t flawed? But his faith informed his politics in a central way. Dallas’ comment on Obama’s speech is also worth re-reading.

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