With many of all political persuasions I watched a number of the proceedings surrounding the death of Ted Kennedy, senator from Massachusetts and surviving brother in a generation of national leaders, the other three have died untimely and tragically. I have been aware of the long and winding road that Kennedy had traveled, conscious of his capacity for goodness and justice, and also the destructiveness that his behavior had visited on others.
I have found the commentary about his life, from both sides of the aisle, to be moving. I was not quite prepared, however, for the revelation that came, quietly, at the graveside service. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired spiritual leader of the Archdiocese or Washington, D.C., would officiate. The ritual began slowly, the words communicating comfort and the assurance of the prayers of many. Then McCarrick noted that Senator Kennedy had earlier in the year sent a letter to Pope Benedict, via President Barack Obama, and that two weeks later Benedict had responded. The Cardinal read excerpts from both letters, and I found the substance of them to be remarkable.
Kennedy, nearing the end of his life, writes “with deep humility”, claiming the resources of his Catholic faith, confessing the imperfection of his humanity and the corresponding need for divine grace, articulating his vocation (on behalf of the poor) and noting his work in the one area that has not been his focus, and yet reaching toward the Pope in an appeal to the conscience of those who are compelled by the rights of the unborn. He assured the Pope that he prayed for him, and in turn asked for Benedict’s prayers. Clearly, he saw the end of life coming closer.
Pope Benedict, in response, offered words of consolation, peace and apostolic blessing, in the hope that Kennedy would be sustained by the strength of the Lord, and commending him to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. In the letter, Benedict assured Kennedy of his “concern and spiritual closeness”.
The exchange of letters came as a surprise to me, in that it did and does not fit our usual cultural framework: a northeastern liberal politician, speaking about the life-giving reality of faith and the importance of the church and prayer in his life, and the traditionalist church leader, setting aside dogma, for a moment, and extending a measure of grace. Two powerful men, somehow drawn into the very life of the crucified and risen Lord, their voices clear and compelling, at a graveside: it was a pastoral, and, yes, a holy moment.