Jack, Bobby, Ted: Three Kennedy funerals and the progress of liturgical reform

FINAL COMMENDATION. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley presides at the funeral Mass for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on Aug. 29, 2009.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church assembled for the second session of the Second Vatican Council voted on the final draft of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”). A few hours later President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Tex. Just two weeks later, the constitution was formally approved by the council. No doubt the Kennedy assassination loomed much larger in the world’s consciousness than the approval of the liturgy constitution, but like the election of the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, the liturgy constitution was to have a significant impact on how American Catholics related to the world. Since that time, the nation has also mourned the deaths of two more Kennedy brothers: Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy. The funerals of these three men were not only significant moments in U.S. history; they can also serve as markers of liturgical change.

The funeral of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 25, 1963, took place at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. A pontifical requiem low Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Richard Cushing at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy. In place of a homily, Auxiliary Bishop Philip Hannan read from a number of President Kennedy’s speeches, including his entire inaugural address. Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and “Pie Jesu” were sung at the offertory. Two months later Cardinal Cushing celebrated a solemn high pontifical Mass at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross to the accompaniment of Mozart’s Requiem.

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Though many people were able to witness the funeral through the mass media, the liturgical aspect of the event did not draw much attention. In fact, in terms of understanding, the liturgy was not easily accessible to Roman Catholics, much less others. Within a year, however, much of this was to change. There were a number of reforms that took place rather quickly after the council: the change of the priest’s posture toward the people, the introduction of the vernacular for most of the liturgy and the inclusion of a variety of music.

The change in the celebrant’s posture may well have been the most effective example of the reform—even more significant than the use of the vernacular. A number of other churches like the Lutheran and Episcopal churches quickly followed suit. The first instruction, in September 1964, was followed in 1967 by an important instruction on sacred music (“Musicam Sacram”). Here the most significant change was approval to substitute hymns and other songs not contained in the liturgical texts (for the introit and communion chants, for example). This was to encourage Catholics to sing Protestant hymns and other new compositions as part of the liturgy itself.

The Early Years of Reform

Those early reforms characterized the situation in 1968, the year of our second snapshot. In June of that year Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. senator from New York, was shot and killed. His funeral took place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on June 8, 1968. This time the funeral was a sung requiem Mass, celebrated by Archbishop (not yet Cardinal) Terence Cooke of New York. Andy Williams sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; Richard Tucker sang “Panis Angelicus”; and Leonard Bernstein conducted the adagio from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Several hymns were sung in English. Participants received Communion on the tongue while kneeling, and the clergy wore purple vestments instead of black, which was the standard color for Masses for the Dead before Vatican II.

Robert Kennedy’s funeral took place a year or so before the introduction of the new Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969 and went into effect in late 1970. By 1967, however, the entire liturgy of the Eucharist, including the eucharistic prayer, had been translated into English. The missal that began to be used shortly after Robert Kennedy’s funeral and its pastoral and theological introduction represented a radical departure from pre-Vatican II liturgy. It included many options, among them a choice among four eucharistic prayers instead of only one, the venerable Roman canon, which had been the only eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite for well over a millennium. In addition, the volume of biblical material was increased enormously, with a three-year cycle for the reading of Scripture on Sundays, including the addition of an Old Testament reading on Sundays and major feasts. For the first time in history a weekday lectionary (on a two-year cycle) was also provided.

Robert Kennedy’s funeral came after significant progress had been made toward Christian unity, and part of that progress was a reformed liturgy that could easily be seen to have a “family resemblance” with the worship of a number of Protestant and Anglican churches. In fact, there had been a liturgical movement underway in several churches for decades. Many churches adopted Sunday biblical readings that were virtually identical to the Roman Lectionary, making it possible for neighboring pastors to meet together regularly to discuss their upcoming Sunday preaching. In addition, a number of other Christian churches produced liturgical books that had a remarkable resemblance to the shape and content of the Roman Catholic reform.

Although not directly related to the public effect of the council’s liturgy constitution, it is worthwhile to pause and consider the general reception of the council’s liturgical reforms. From the outset they met with resistance. Very few bishops had voted against the constitution, but more joined the ranks of the opponents as the various instructions for implementing the reform were published. Some of the most traditional among the bishops objected very strongly to the addition of three new eucharistic prayers as well as the translation of the eucharistic prayers into the vernacular. In addition, a number of Catholics, especially in Great Britain, felt that the new liturgy lessened the distance between Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants.

In a fine review of the state of the reform published in 2008, the theologian and philosopher Gerard Austin, O.P., points out three areas in which the reform has not fared so well. The first area is the interrelation between the priesthood of the baptized and that of the ordained. The lack of a truly renewed theology of the ordained ministry has continued to bedevil the Catholic Church. A second area where the council’s liturgical reform has not been well received is in how we perceive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Problems can occur when eucharistic adoration is emphasized without attention to the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the communal act of the church (head and members) becoming itself, the body of Christ in and for the world.

Father Austin’s third and most pertinent observation has to do with the relation between the liturgy and our attitude toward the world. How the church worships inevitably affects its face toward the world and the attitudes that Catholics have toward the world. He insists that “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” be interpreted not solely on its own, but in relation to all of the council’s 16 documents. For him, truly engaging the liturgical reform requires embracing the council’s openness to the world. The way the post-Vatican II liturgy is celebrated promotes a positive view of the world. The liturgical reform went hand-in-hand with a shift from a cultural Catholicism that emphasized sin and the fear of hell to one that required a much more positive engagement of faith and appreciation of God’s love for the world in Christ. This shift can easily be seen in the funeral liturgy, which prior to the council had focused on the deceased and his or her fate in the hands of God (as appears in the Dies Irae, for example), but in the last several decades has placed more emphasis on Christian hope and the grief and consolation of the mourners.

Over the years, the liturgical reform and the liturgy itself have become more visible while also taking on a kind of Americanized character. It seems that in many cases opposition to the contemporary reform of the liturgy has to do with qualms about contemporary culture—particularly with the challenges it poses to traditional morality.

In an important essay entitled “Liturgy and the Crisis of Culture,” published in 1988, Msgr. Francis Mannion argued that three aspects of American culture have profoundly affected liturgical celebration. These are the subjectification of reality, the intimization of culture and the politicization of society. The first is a result of the Enlightenment’s “turn to the subject” and the consequent individualism so rampant in modern culture. The second, intimization, has to do with the notion that only close intimacy is really genuine and that therefore only small-group worship is authentic. The last of these factors, politicization, relates to the tendency in contemporary society to turn everything into a political battlefield. There is great merit in the argument. Liturgy and culture do constitute a two-way street.

The Liturgy Today

Although Edward Kennedy’s death was not a sudden tragedy like the assassinations of his brothers, his funeral was widely broadcast and drew national attention. For this reason it can serve as a third marker for discerning the impact of the Vatican II liturgical reform on public life. The funeral of the longtime senator from Massachusetts took place on Aug. 29, 2009, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (known as the Mission Church), in Boston. Donald Monan, S.J., former president of Boston College, was the priest-celebrant; the Rev. Mark Hession, the Kennedys’ pastor from Cape Cod, was the preacher. Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston presided in choir.

The “star quality” of the music that marked John’s and Robert’s funerals was evident at this one as well—Susan Graham sang “Ave Maria” and the cellist YoYo Ma accompanied the tenor Placido Domingo, who sang “Panis Angelicus.” A number of aspects of Edward Kennedy’s funeral liturgy reflected the current state of Roman Catholicism vis-à-vis American public life. Of note was the heightened attention given to which Catholic politicians might receive holy Communion. How prominent Catholics participate in liturgy has become a matter of public interest. Although the media were not allowed to film the Communion procession, at least on the side of the church where the dignitaries were located, it was quite clear that Cardinal O’Malley left the sanctuary to offer the greeting of peace to President Obama and Mrs. Obama, as well as to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Jill Biden.

Overall, this funeral liturgy was a good example of contemporary, accessible Roman Catholic worship. The majority of those in attendance appeared to receive Communion in the hand. And the use of white vestments was another indication of how Catholic attitudes had changed with regard to funerals and to death in general. A broadcast liturgy like this one, however, missed an opportunity in that some Catholic “best practices” were not followed. The eucharistic acclamations were not sung, for example, nor the responsorial song or even the Alleluia. Also, regrettably, Communion was not given under both species. All in all, not much was remarkable about the last of these three Kennedy funerals. Perhaps this was itself a sign that the liturgical reform, at least as an American cultural phenomenon, has taken root and become a normal part of the national culture.

The three Kennedy funerals tell only part of the story of the public effect of the Vatican II reform of the liturgy, as they lack the regional, ethnic and gender diversity necessary to provide a full picture. Yet they demonstrate a real-life connection between the liturgy and society. Each of these public figures was ardently committed to the public good and in particular to peace and social justice. Their lives of service can also remind us that the liturgical reform made the justice dimension and consequences of the liturgy all the more evident. As the Rev. Robert Hovda once wrote: “What do you mean we need more peace liturgies? Peace liturgies are the only kind we have.”

The stubbornly perduring view that one must make a choice between being a partisan of the liturgy and being a partisan of social justice is deadly. The relation between the liturgy and ordinary life, with the implication of the struggle for peace and justice, is probably the most unrealized and unappreciated promise of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform. The liturgy truly can mirror what God wants the world to look like—the kingdom of God. The reformed Catholic liturgy can help people realize the value of communion, peace and equality, but we have a long way to go before this potential is fully realized.

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Kevin Murphy
4 years 7 months ago
Father Baldwin stresses that all the Kennedys were "ardently committed to the public good and in particular to peace and social justice." However, let's not forget that Ted Kennedy's dedication to the downtrodden did not include the millions of unborn children that were aborted. The right to abort was a cause for which the Senator was, due to his name recognition and influence, the most powerful advocate. The unborn did not figure in his view of the most vulnerable in our society. He was not a champion of "peace and social justice." He was a champion of some aspects, but he left, literally, millions out of the equation. People should remember that.
Kenneth Wolfe
4 years 7 months ago
It is unfortunate that JFK's Requiem Mass was Low, but as you mentioned that is what the first lady requested. But if the average layman were to have access to video and audio of the High Mass in Boston offered for JFK, with Mozart's Requiem as the musical setting, and compare that to the other Kennedy funerals, I think the choice would be clear. Sorry, but what you actually described from 1963 to the last Kennedy funeral is a trail of horrible decisions. Except for the liturgical elite, who are likely putting the finishing touches on their own funeral instructions, almost no one likes the changes of the transitional liturgy used at RFK's funeral or the novus ordo service used at Teddy Kennedy's (who arguably should have had a private Requiem Low Mass with only family present and no communion offered). If Father Baldovin's argument was correct, then young Catholics would be flocking to the most innovative novus ordo around. They (we) are not. A substantial interest exists for the traditional Latin Mass, Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony and art, vestments and architecture as it was before the mid-20th century. Just look at the trends to see the future.
Sara Damewood
4 years 6 months ago
"The liturgy truly can mirror what God wants the world to look like—the kingdom of God. The reformed Catholic liturgy can help people realize the value of communion, peace and equality, but we have a long way to go before this potential is fully realized." Amen!
Bryan Sheridan
4 years 6 months ago
As Bobby Kennedy's coffin was carried down the aisle at the conclusion of the Mass, I seem to recall that Mozart's Alleluia was sung, or is my recollection faulty and it was the Handel Hallelujah Chorus? Either way, I remember being hugely struck at the time by this counter instinctive (in worldly terms) choice which, at the same time, was a powerful affirmation of Faith.
paul parish
4 years 6 months ago
Robert Kennedy's funeral did end with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" being sung as the coffin left the church -- if I remember right, which since I was 21 then and am 67 now is open to some doubt -- but I remember it had a colossal impact on me, as a magnanimous ecumenical act, since Messiah was Protestant, non-Catholic music. It was also a tremendous political gesture coming from an Irish family, since the Messiah, and Handel's music, was Orange-men's music. It had been for so long and so strongly associated with King Billy, with asserting English power, with the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. It was not Catholic music AT ALL, not in 1968. In Kennedy's funeral liturgy; it followed "in Paradisum" [or maybe "Pie Jesu" -- of this I'm not so sure, nor whether it was the Gregorian or Faure's -- but whatever it was, it was serene, exquisite, absorbing, intimate, and Latin -- very traditional Catholic music -- and then Handel's blast of glory was trumpets and angels shouting down the glory, in ENGLISH: a Bernini-esque coup de theatre, given the politics associated with that music. We've all heard that King George leapt to his feet when he first heard the "Hallelujah Chorus," we all know the scathing "Modest Proposal" written by his contemporary Jonathan Swift [an Anglican dean!] in protest against the British subjugation of the Irish-- the weight of the gesture was just astounding in its magnanimity. Or at least that's how I felt at the time.

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