As I complete my time of rest and recuperation, I found myself unpredictably (at least had I been able to predict six months ago) with time available to me to watch on the television most of the events surrounding the funeral and burial of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. For myself, the time was prayerful and well spent because I knew a lot about Senator Kennedy when he was still fairly young and, of course, I was younger still.
Senator Kennedy and I, many years ago, were, according to the common understanding, not quite ready to get in line to go and meet our Judge. There was plenty of time available, we presumed, to prepare ourselves to take our place in that line, and to welcome that part of our humanity which is experiencing the mystery of suffering and death.
As I watched Senator Kennedy’s funeral, it became very real to me that not only am I and so many of my friends very much a part of that line right now, getting ready to meet our maker, but we’re rather soberingly close to the front of that line. As I speak in this way, I don’t want anyone to think that I am indirectly referring to some medical crisis that brings me close to death — there is no such crisis. At the same time, realizing that one is much closer to the front of that line challenges me to intensify my efforts to grow in holiness and to be evermore alive through the mercy and forgiveness of God. And for that, I am grateful for the experience of last weekend.
Remembering his accomplishments
There can be no doubt that Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments as the “Lion of the Senate” always were intended to help the most poor and downtrodden in our society, whether in terms of helping the developmentally handicapped, or young children with little or no strong educational opportunities, or taking leadership in providing healthcare for children, and on and on and on. Senator Kennedy certainly did live out the Gospel, in that the lifestyle of being a disciple of Jesus Christ means seeing the hungry and feeding them, seeing the naked and clothing them, seeing those who are sick or in prison and visiting them, and other like occurrences that are part of our everyday life. No one can take credit away from Senator Kennedy for his leadership in these very important areas.
And yet there was also a disconnect in his life between the strong exercise of pro-life leadership in the areas described above and his leadership against the pro-life cause relative to the abortion of our tiniest brothers and sisters, embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and so on.
The challenge for us as Catholics in the United States — and it is a challenge both personally and as a community — is to bridge that disconnect and pull that whole seamless garment of the defense of life together, rather than rending that garment in twain and choosing one, while almost, or actually, excluding the other. The social teaching of the Church and her pro-life stance surely are interwoven as a seamless garment.
The ‘two-conscience’ approach
Senator Kennedy, a good number of years ago, convened a meeting of priests and very high-level theologians to address the issue of Catholic political leaders and their votes with regard to abortion. Obviously, the very convening of this meeting showed that he took his Catholicism seriously and did not consider himself to be an accomplished theologian. Sadly, that meeting simply became another occasion for the development by theologians of the “two-conscience” approach to the faith for Catholic political leaders — that is the approach which says, “privately I’m opposed to abortion, but in the public arena there are other conflicting responsibilities which allow me to vote in favor of legal abortion.”
No matter how many theologians get together, the two-conscience theory is irreparably flawed and wrong, and no one can make it otherwise. But if Senator Kennedy was given this advice and this approach, this “catechesis” — false though it is — by prominent theologians, it could at least be said that there was some ground for confusion and ambiguity in his own practice about these matters. The priests and theologians who counseled Senator Kennedy are not free of blame for causing the confusion and the ambiguity through false catechesis.
God forbid that I be taken as making excuses for Teddy Kennedy’s behavior in certain areas, yet Senator Kennedy’s having written a personal letter to our Holy Father during his last days, a letter that was hand-delivered by President Obama, is also an indication that he believed that the pope alone was the Vicar of Christ, and he wanted to make absolutely sure that our Holy Father received his letter. And too, since priests were regularly present to him during his final year and final days, it would be more reasonable than not to believe that he had made a good confession.
Celebrating the Rites of Christian Burial
All of this is leading me up to the expression of my contentment with how our Church, in a subdued fashion, celebrated the Rites of Christian Burial for Senator Kennedy — the proclamation of God’s Mercy was powerful, the prayer for forgiveness of his past sins was clearly offered, and all of this in a subdued way because of his long-standing and public holding of pro-abortion and other stances which have been a scandal in the literal sense.
The only aspects of the Funeral Rites which were not low key were those on the guest-list, where family preferences are generally granted.
I’m afraid, however, that for not a few Catholics, the funeral rites for Senator Kennedy were a source of scandal — that is, quite literally, led them into sin. From not a few corners has come the question, “how on earth could Teddy Kennedy be buried from the Church?” There have also been expressions from some, that “whatever happens in Church, Senator Kennedy will now face justice, which will lead him inside the gates of Hell.”
From the earliest days of the Church it was defined as sinful to enjoy the thought that someone might be in Hell. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit worked powerfully through history so that Hell could be avoided by the proper exercise of human freedom, and to take delight in the perceived foiling of God’s plan is wrong.
Pope Benedict XVI has written very beautifully that on the Cross of Christ there was lived out a conflict between God’s justice, in that someone who was Himself equal to God had to die in reparation for man’s sinfulness, and God’s mercy: from the very beginning, the Church believed and taught that Jesus died precisely so that sins might be forgiven. His body was broken and His blood was shed so that sins might be forgiven, so that there might be mercy.
Remembering God’s mercy
The death of Senator Kennedy has called forth at least an apparent rejection of mercy on the part of not a few Catholics. On the cross of Christ, God’s justice came into conflict with God’s mercy. God’s justice was fully satisfied, but mercy triumphed in the conflict, according to the teaching of Pope Benedict. Without denying any misdeeds on the part of Senator Kennedy, the Church, seeking to reflect the face of Christ, proclaimed God’s mercy for the whole world to see in a subdued but unmistakable way. It was more than appropriate.
In the seminary I was taught to speak like a lion from the pulpit — certainly there are those in the diocese who believe that perhaps I do that all too well — but that in the confessional I should be a lamb, reflecting the face of the Lamb of God, who died so that there might be mercy. The funeral rites for Senator Kennedy challenge all of us to question ourselves as to whether we are less eager to grant mercy than God Himself is.
It is so important at this time that our Catholic homes and families re-emphasize their role as schools of mercy, not at the expense of justice, and not at the expense of Truth, but recognizing that Jesus Christ gave His body to be broken and His blood to be poured out, so that there might be mercy. This is the reason for our devotion, through the inspiration of Sister Faustina and its confirmation by Pope John Paul II, to the Divine Mercy prayers, which I hope are becoming more prominent and more frequently practiced in our homes and in our parishes.
So, let our witness to mercy, which in the end was victorious on the Cross, even while justice was satisfied, resound through this diocese. This resolution of the conflict between mercy and justice could be accomplished only in and through Jesus Christ. And in this hour of hope and challenge, as Church, to be the Body of Christ, let us proclaim in word and in deed this same mystery every single day! That is your mission and mine. Someday, you and I will be in desperate need of that triumph of mercy.
I hope that your summer days have been restful and blessed. Thank you for reading this. God bless you and yours. Praised be Jesus Christ!