Catholics remember sorrow of JFK assassination

President John F Kennedy Credit US Embassy New Delhi via Flickr CC BY ND 20 CNA President John F Kennedy. | US Embassy New Delhi via Flickr CC BY ND 2.0.

The 50th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination has prompted many Catholics to remember the first Catholic president's impact on American life and the deep grief and shock his death caused.

"So many people can recall exactly where they were when they got the news of Kennedy's death," Brendan Moore, national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, told CNA Nov. 20.

Moore, who now heads the Irish-American Catholic fraternal order, said he was a college freshman in Washington, D.C., when the president was killed in Dallas.

Moore said his reaction was "absolute shock and disbelief."

"I think there was a tremendous, widespread sense of shock. Irish-Americans in particular, but I would have to say, the entire American nation, shared in this sorrow."

Moore said it was "very significant" that Kennedy was the first Catholic U.S. president, but the president's "idealism" resonated with all Americans.

"He provided us with a sense of enthusiasm, almost a contagiously upbeat approach to our country, as leading the world, and being a tremendous resource for other nations. He really encompassed a desire to work with other nations, not just to advance American interests, but to improve living conditions and relationships throughout the world."

President Kennedy was also a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal charitable order.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus on Nov. 22 remembered the fallen president as "a brother Knight" and "a man of faith who left an important legacy."

Anderson encouraged Americans and their elected leaders to "remember and embrace" Kennedy's vision of service to neighbor. He also praised the president's vision of a country where rights are "absolute." In President Kennedy's words, these rights come "not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

Many U.S. leaders have already marked the anniversary of the president's death.

President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nov. 20 laid a wreath at Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where an eternal flame marks his grave.

Washington, D.C.'s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which hosted President Kennedy's funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963, will hold a Choral Mass of Remembrance at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, the anniversary of his death. The Mass will be celebrated by cathedral rector Monsignor W. Ronald Jameson. The homilist will be Father Bryan Hehir, professor of religion and public life at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are hosting a memorial Mass and community reflections at Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Nov. 22 at 5:30 p.m. local time.

Moore said that Kennedy's Irish background "really resonated" with Irish-Americans.

"I think many, many people were able to identify with him even though he came from an extremely wealthy background," he said.

The shock of Kennedy's assassination was also "deeply felt" in Ireland, which sent an honor guard from the Irish Defense Forces to the president's funeral at the request of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

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"Even today, in traveling in Ireland, there are always fond memories of Jack Kennedy and how he really embraced his Irish identity," said Moore.

He added that Kennedy was a member of a Hibernian division in Massachusetts.

"The very fact that he would have joined the AOH would indicate some sense of pride on his part, that he would want to belong to an Irish Catholic organization. That is something that we still write about, and think about, and talk about," he said.

Moore said Kennedy's legacy includes the Peace Corps, which sent young people on humanitarian work around the world, as well as the belief that "any group, regardless of who they are, regardless of their religion, can put forth a candidate who convinces the American electorate that he is well equipped to do the job."

Catholic commentator George Weigel, writing on the website of the journal "First Things" Nov. 20, similarly praised Kennedy's "idealism" and "elegance."

He recounted his own memory of the assassination as a seventh grader in Baltimore. He witnessed his "tough-love" teacher, a young School Sister of Notre Dame, "sobbing, her face buried in her arms on her desk."

However, Weigel suggested Kennedy's legacy was not entirely positive.

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"I fear that much of the Kennedy mythos is an obstacle to the flowering of Catholic witness in America," he wrote.

Weigel said that Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston on relations between church and state, intended to alleviate the concerns of Protestant ministers about the role of his Catholic faith in the president's office, also had the effect of "dramatically privatizing religious conviction and marginalizing its role in orienting a public official's moral compass."

This made Kennedy the "precursor" of the view that the American public sphere should not include "religiously-informed moral conviction," he explained.