Nov. 22, 1963, was a day of mourning for the United States as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Now, 60 years later, Catholics continue to look back at his life and legacy and the role his faith played in his presidency.

On that fateful day, Barbara Perry, currently a professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia, was in second grade at St. Albert Catholic School in Louisville, Kentucky. She recalled working on an art project when her teacher shared the news.

“All of a sudden, I looked up, the teacher had turned toward us and said, ‘The president’s been shot. Please line up, we’re going to church to pray for him,’” Perry said in an interview with “EWTN News In Depth.”

Born in 1917, Kennedy grew up during an era when anti-Catholic prejudice was pervasive in the United States. It was in 1928 that the country’s first major party Catholic presidential nominee, four-term New York Gov. Al Smith, ran for president.

Perry explained: “He was vanquished in a landslide by Herbert Hoover because he was Catholic. They [people] were afraid of having a Catholic president because they said the pope would run the country.”

As a youngster, Kennedy served as an altar boy at St. Aidan’s in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his mother, Rose, attended daily Mass. The family matriarch had a great impact on the young boy’s faith, leading her children in prayer before every meal and quizzing them on Gospel readings. 

A young John F. Kennedy. JFK Library Foundation
A young John F. Kennedy. JFK Library Foundation

It was Kennedy’s father, Joseph, who would stoke his political ambitions. 

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After serving in combat in the U.S. Navy during World War II, starting in the late 1940s Kennedy was elected to the United States Congress, first as a representative and then as a senator.

Cognizant of deep anti-Catholic fears leading up to the 1960 election, two months before Election Day Kennedy delivered a critical speech before a group of Protestant pastors in Houston. There Kennedy declared his belief “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” He added that his Catholic faith would not influence his presidency.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” Kennedy said. “I do not speak for my Church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me.”

On Jan. 20, 1961, following Mass at Holy Trinity Church near his home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., Kennedy delivered his famous inaugural address as president. For the first time, a Catholic moved into the White House.

A mixed blessing for the Catholic Church

Dr. Matthew Wilson, a Catholic, political science professor, and director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Southern Methodist University, called the JFK presidency a mixed blessing for the Catholic Church in America. 

“It came with a price because it showed that a Catholic could be accepted if he was willing to leave a significant part of his faith at the door,” he said in an interview with “EWTN News In Depth.”

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“Separation of church and state does not mean the marginalization or the sidelining of our deepest values that are derived from our religious faith,” Wilson explained.

Wilson pointed out that since Kennedy, a pattern has emerged where both Democrat and Republican politicians in the U.S. often misuse or sacrifice their faith convictions for political purposes. “Time and time again, they choose party over church. They choose party values over religious values.” 

However, for Kennedy the separation of his personal and public life evidently went deeper than just politics.

“He was an incorrigible womanizer and cheated many times on his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy,” Perry said. “So yes, he led a promiscuous life in his personal life.”

Despite this, Perry pointed out that Kennedy continued to keep an unmistakably Catholic spiritual routine.

Nightly prayers and sacrament of reconciliation

“President Kennedy, throughout his presidency and throughout his life, went to Mass religiously, every Sunday,” she explained. “Yes, he probably had some questions about his faith, but she [Jacqueline] said every night he was down on his knees saying his prayers.” Mrs. Kennedy also said her husband went to confession sometimes.

For weekend getaways, the Kennedys would spend time in the countryside, near Middleburg, Virginia. In the early 1960s, St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Middleburg was completed with the president in mind. On Nov. 10, 1963, JFK attended his last Mass at St. Stephen’s.

The next Sunday, Nov. 17, Kennedy attended Mass at St. Ann Catholic Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. Kennedy’s Requiem Mass was held on Nov. 25 at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. An engraving on the floor of the cathedral marks the spot where the casket rested, prior to the president’s remains being removed to Arlington National Cemetery “in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.”

Monsignor John Enzler is a Catholic priest in Washington. Screenshot from EWTN News In Depth
Monsignor John Enzler is a Catholic priest in Washington. Screenshot from EWTN News In Depth

Monsignor John Enzler, a Catholic priest in Washington, was in high school when Kennedy was assassinated. As he reflects on the life of Kennedy now, he sees it as a cautionary tale for all politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who proclaim the Christian faith yet reject it in aspects of either their personal or public life.

“Sin is like a cancer. When you fall into a sin, it begins to eat away at your very being,” he told “EWTN News In Depth” in an interview. Enzler added the true tragedy would be to not accept God’s forgiveness and reform our lives.

He shared: “The tragedy would be to lose your soul. To say ‘I’m not being able to enter God’s kingdom because of my actions, because of my decisions, because of my rejection of what in conscience I know is right.”