Reflecting on Unity and Freedom on the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Death

Fifty years ago today, on November 22, 1963, our nation and our world mourned the death of President John F. Kennedy. As our country’s first Catholic president, his assassination was for many Americans like a death in the family.  But in an outpouring of national grief, men and women of all beliefs came together when they heard the terrible news, as the common decency and goodness that is deep-seated in our human nature came to the fore and overcame divisions and political discord.

Three days later, the slain president was brought before the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle for a Pontifical Requiem Mass to commend his soul to the unending mercy of God.  Present for this state funeral was the new President Lyndon Johnson, former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman, and world leaders from over 90 countries. Outside, a reported million people lined the streets to witness the funeral procession, with six horses drawing the caisson bearing the president’s flag-draped coffin.  Catholics and non-Catholics, Democrats and Republicans, those who had acclaimed John Kennedy and those who disagreed with him – they all were able to set aside their differences and stand as one people.

Bishop Philip Hannan – then an auxiliary bishop of Washington and a personal friend of President Kennedy – was asked by the family to deliver a few remarks of remembrance.  He shared some excerpts from the late president’s favorite quotes from Scripture, and from his notable speeches, including his inaugural address. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” read Bishop Hannan. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

On this 50th year since President Kennedy’s death, that call to serve our country and carry out God’s work here on Earth continues to ring out.  This is the perennial Christian message that we are all one human family, that only through building that culture of fraternity and solidarity that Pope Francis speaks about will we find genuine peace and prosperity.

This reminiscence also reminds us that there was a time when some believed that a Catholic should not be president simply because of his faith. We can never take our religious freedom for granted.  Nor can we neglect our responsibility as Catholics and as Americans to bring our faith to the public arena, especially since being a good American does not require abandoning or privatizing one’s Catholic faith.  To the contrary, to promote publicly the Catholic message is to encourage America to strive for her own highest ideals.

In colonial Maryland, which had been the birthplace of religious freedom in this land, laws were later passed that forbade Catholics from publicly practicing their faith.  In 2009, I participated in the ceremonial unlocking of the reconstructed Brick Chapel in Historic Saint Mary’s City – a reminder that we must remain vigilant in defending our first freedom.  That is why, to cite but one example, we have challenged the HHS mandate that would force many Catholic institutions to violate Church teaching by facilitating coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures in employee health insurance plans.

With John Kennedy, the bigoted taboo of not electing a Catholic as president was broken, but clearly much remains to be done since efforts to restrict Catholic faith to merely personal private belief continue.  However, authentic Catholic faith is lived not just in houses of worship, but also through our educational and charitable outreach, as well as by being an advocate for justice and human dignity, and laws must protect our right to live this faith fully and in good conscience. Today, as faithful Catholics and thus loyal Americans, we continue to stand strong for our country and our faith, knowing, as the president once said, that “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”