Robert Kennedy's Catholicism was part of his personal life and politics

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum via Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Recollections and tributes to Robert F.
Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination have mainly highlighted
his charisma and determined advocacy for social and racial justice.

underlying these tributes to the former attorney general, U.S. senator, Democratic
presidential candidate and father of 11, also is an unmistakable connection to
his Catholic faith.

references to Kennedy’s faith come up when mentioning his Irish Catholic family
or his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but there also are plenty
of anecdotes in biographies mentioning that he was an altar server or wore a
St. Christopher medal. And then there are his speeches, which often echo
Catholic social teaching without coming right out and saying it.

Newsweek tribute to Kennedy describes one of his speeches as “typically
peppered with erudition and an almost ecclesiastic, Catholic compassion.”

That particular
speech asked what reason people have for existing “unless we’ve made some
other contribution to somebody else to improve their own lives?”

and biographers alike have not shied away from Kennedy’s Catholicism, often
saying he was the most Catholic of the Kennedy brothers and that he wasn’t
afraid to express his faith.

Tye, author of “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” in 2016,
said Kennedy’s faith helped him as he grieved the 1963 assassination of his
brother, President John F. Kennedy, noting that he kept a missal beside him in
the car and thumbed through it to prayers he found consoling.

instead of just attending Sunday Mass, Tye said, Kennedy was “in the pew
nearly every day. His faith helped him internalize the assassination in a way
that, over time, freed his spirit.”

Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who was a legislative aide to
Kennedy from 1964 until his death, can attest to this.

described Kennedy as “assiduous in his practice of his Catholicism”
and said his “values and work were certainly based significantly in his

asked to explain this more, he told Catholic News Service that when he and
Kennedy were in New York City, Kennedy often stopped for a few minutes to go
into a church to pray while Edelman said he stayed outside because he is

was the Kennedy who took his Catholicism most seriously. He attended Mass
regularly, and prayed with his family before meals and bed,” said Jerald
Podair, a history and American studies professor at Lawrence University in Appleton,

who is currently writing a book about the politics of the 1960s and its links
to the rise of President Donald Trump, said Kennedy always wore a St.
Christopher medal too, but he said his Catholicism was not limited to his personal
life but also showed up in his politics.

As he
put it in an email to CNS, Kennedy viewed his faith “as a summons to heal
the world, making it a more equal and just place. An example was his strong
support for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement, one that itself was
steeped in Catholic liturgy and morals.”

said Kennedy was drawn to the farmworkers’ cause — when few other mainstream
politicians were — “largely because of its links to Catholicism.”
He noted that when Kennedy sat with Chavez as he took Communion at an outdoor
Mass after the end of his March 1968 hunger strike, it was a public expression
of Kennedy’s firmly believed Catholic view that all people are equal and
deserve equal rights and opportunities.

historian also said it was no coincidence that when Kennedy lay dying on the
floor of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel after he was shot, a rosary was
placed on him by the Mexican-American busboy who had just shaken his hand.

meant that he would die as he had lived,” Podair said.

hotel is long gone, but today in its place is a school and memorial bearing
Kennedy’s words, which read in part: “Each time a person stands up for an
ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,
it sends out a tiny ripple of hope.”

book, “Robert Kennedy: His Life,” written by Evan Thomas in 2002, described
Kennedy as a “a romantic Catholic who believed that it was possible to
create the kingdom of heaven on earth,” and notes that although Kennedy at
times may have lost the certainty of his faith, he never lost the hope.

He also
said Kennedy was an altar server when he was growing up and who would even
serve that role as an adult if he saw there was no altar server at Mass.

basics of Catholicism — prayers, Mass and crosses or saint statues in the house
— were part of Kennedy’s life with Ethel and their children as well, ranging in
age from 16- to not-yet-born when he died.

In a
2008 interview with the Boston Globe, Kennedy’s daughter Kerry Kennedy, the
seventh child, who was 8 when her father died, said faith was central to her
upbringing — especially prayers before and after meals, an out loud Bible
reading and Sunday Mass.

Kennedy, who established the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights
in New York, said her faith was influenced by both of her parents, noting that
her father thought about being a priest and her mother considered being a nun.

In a
June 6 tweet the day of a 50th anniversary memorial service for her father at
Arlington National Cemetery, Kerry Kennedy said: “I miss my father every
day, but I am strengthened to know the causes he believed in are still
championed by brave activists today. His legacy and work are timeless.”

That service,
which included numerous tributes and people quoting Kennedy’s own words, began
fittingly with an opening invocation by a priest echoing the hope Kennedy so
often expressed.

are gathered here in a spirit not of mourning, but of hope,” said Jesuit
Father Matt Malone, editor of America magazine.

He also
added: “Bobby Kennedy still lives in millions of hearts that seek a newer

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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