Rites, wrongs and a letter from Rome

In terms of political content, the unofficial state funeral (video here) of Sen. Edward Kennedy was pretty normal, with pews full of presidents and prose full of allusions to legislation that helped the masses, with President Barack Obama in full civil-religion flight.

But the Catholic politics of these final events? That's another matter, with layers of symbolism, gaps in the public record and unanswered questions.

First, consider this one simple statement in the Boston Globe coverage:

Obama and Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who presided over the Mass, shared an extended greeting.

O'Malley was present, but did he in fact preside in this rite? That's an interesting question because, as several GetReligion readers noted, the event took place in the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (also known as The Mission Church of Boston -- which is a church of the religious order known as the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province. This simple fact raises some interesting questions, as noted by one of this weblog's most loyal Catholic readers. Let's give Julia her say:

Cardinal O'Malley was clad in what is known as choir dress. That means he was neither a celebrant nor a presider. He was there the same as the folks in the pews.

The church is run by the Redemptorist order of priests. That means that the archbishop has more trouble enforcing the diocesan rules on funerals, among other things, at such parishes. The same thing happens at Jesuit churches. The Cardinal did not look very happy to me.

At the Final Commendation, where the Cardinal had the last say at the Mass, he briefly mentioned that Ted Kennedy was an important national figure, but his major point was praise of the last days of the Senator's life which he and his wife spent in prayer. Short and pithy. Very smart. The text of the Commendation Rite ritually hands the soul of the deceased over to God who will judge Him. ...

The Ordinary parts of the Mass (Sanctus, etc.) were spoken and not sung - very odd considering all the singers present. ... Since there was such a great Irish wake the night before, it seems strange that there were so many, many eulogizing moments during the Mass. That's not the purpose of a Catholic Requiem Mass on the day of burial. The envelope was really, really pushed hard.

Again, note that the cardinal spoke at the very end of the rite, after the president, in fact. This may imply that his words were not part of the formal liturgy that was offered by the Redemptorists -- an order with strong ties (well covered by many journalists) with Kennedy that go back for years. In other words, as a question of liturgy, O'Malley may or may not have been invited to "preside" over the service and he may or may not have accepted that invitation. He may simply have been an observer in the actual service, before adding a word of his own after the end of the formal rite.

We do not know. It is, however, interesting to contrast the cardinal's online comments after the death of the devout, pro-life Eunice Kennedy Shriver and then, a short time later, her fiercely pro-abortion-rights brother.

And what about that amazing exchange of letters between the dying senator and Pope Benedict XVI? Here's a typical reference to this dramatic touch at the end of the day, care of the Washington Post:

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, a friend of Kennedy's, presided and read from a letter the senator had written to Pope Benedict XVI, which Obama had delivered to the pontiff in Rome. In the letter, Kennedy wrote he had been "an imperfect human being but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path."

His grandchildren spoke lovingly of their relationship with him and a military rifle squad fired off three volleys. In his prayer, McCarrick asked God to bring Kennedy "to everlasting peace and rest."

The Boston Globe coverage was, of course, deeper and more detailed. There we read some additional information about a word from Rome:

As the single eternal flame at John F. Kennedy's grave burned just steps away up a grassy slope, and the Capitol dome and the monuments of Washington were illuminated against the night sky, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick stood next to Kennedy's casket and recited excerpts from the letter, as well as a reply from an unnamed aide to the pope. It was a stunning and powerful moment that closed an extraordinary day of farewell observances.

"I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings," Kennedy's letter stated. "I continue to pray for God's blessings on you and our Church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me."

PopeObamasAnd there it is, the central question: Are the Catholic dogmas on the sanctity of human life -- from conception to natural death -- part of the church's "central teachings"? While Kennedy said he often "fell short through human failings," his pro-life Catholic critics -- left and right -- will continue to note that his political record on abortion was perfect. He had a 100 percent pro-abortion-rights rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. There were no public signs of a struggle by Kennedy on this point of doctrine.

The Globe went on to note:

The Vatican reply came two weeks later: "His Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God our merciful Father."

Online coverage at the New York Times added one other detail in the graveside remarks:

"They called him the lion of the Senate and indeed that was what he was," Cardinal McCarrick said as he presided over a traditional Catholic burial. "His roar and his zeal for what he believed made a difference in this nation's life."

In a possible reference to Mr. Kennedy's support of abortion rights, Mr. McCarrick added that friends "would get mad at him when he roared at what we believed was the wrong side of the issue."

Once again, note the subtle point that this is the former shepherd of Washington, D.C., who was presiding, not the current archbishop. McCarrick is also, among Catholic conservatives, famous for repeatedly downplaying the contents of a famous letter from one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- entitled "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles." This letter argued that pro-abortion Catholic politicians who declined to repent must, after being warned about their sins, be denied Holy Communion.

At this point, it seems that most -- perhaps all -- of the contents of Kennedy's letter to the pope have been released.

Some sites are also claiming to have released the full text of the response from Rome, which the Globe noted was written by an unnamed papal aide. One of these texts concludes:

"Commending you and the members of your family to the loving intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of wisdom, comfort and strength in the Lord."

At this point, I do not believe that we have a full text of this letter -- since Cardinal McCarrick was reported to have read excerpts. Will the Vatican release the rest of this third-person, indirect ("the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing") statement? I do not think that is likely. Will the family release it? One would have to assume that this depends on what else is in the text.

Truth be told, the public does not need to know the rest of the contents. If it is made public, that would be highly unusual. We can, however, assume that the full letter was read to the senator during the final days of his life, about the time of his final prayers with his priest and, almost certainly, his last confession.

Again, that is between the senator and -- literally -- a much higher authority.

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