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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Michael Paulson at the Globe reported that O’Malley presided over the funeral. He also did a q&a on the funeral (as well as live blogging it with a Catholic priest)


    He answered the O’Malley question here:

    What was Cardinal O’Malley’/s role at the funeral?
    A. O’Malley was present to represent the Catholic Church of Boston, and because he is the archbishop of Boston, he was considered the presider. He was not the principal celebrant of the Mass (that was the Rev. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College), and he was not the homilist (that was Rev. Mark R. Hession, the family priest on Cape Cod). But that was not unusual; bishops often allow other priests to lead weddings or funerals, even when the bishop is present, if there are priests who had closer relationships with the person being married or buried. O’Malley’s most visible role was to offer the prayers of commendation, after the Mass, when he commended Senator Kennedy into the hands of God, and asked God’s blessing on the mourners. During that ritual, O’Malley also honored the body with incense in a sign of God’s blessing.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Paul’s liveblogging of the funeral is here

  • FrDamian

    Once again, note the subtle point that this is the former shepherd of Washington, D.C., who is presiding, not the Vatican’s current representative in the city.

    I’m at a loss as to what the above sentence means. The Vatican’s representative in Washington is the Apostolic Nuncio (currently Archbishop Pietro Sambi). The local bishop is not a representative of the Vatican.

    When would the Vatican’s representative ever preside at the funeral of a local politician?

  • michael seaman

    I cringed when I heard praise by a Catholic priest heaped upon the man who did everything in his power to help women kill their own babies in the womb. Ted Kennedy adopted this position for political expediency, despite claiming to be a Catholic. I had to turn off the news five minutes into the homily. What a shame that the collective conscience of the nation has dulled to this extent.

  • michael seaman

    Dear Fr. Damian,
    Please allow me to help you understand the sentence you with which you are having trouble. It would seem that the writer is stressing the fact that the Kennedy clan simply could not get (or did not want) the current Bishop of Washington DC, the Most Reverend Donald Wuerl, to preside at any of the Kennedy funeral functions (you might recall that bishops are appointed by the pope, and so are in some capacity the representative of the pope).

  • FrDamian

    @ Bob Smietana #1

    There are a number of errors in Michael Paulson’s analysis.

    1. The bishop of a diocese either presides at the Eucharist in his diocese or he sits in choir.

    2. The “principal celebrant” is the presider. They are synonyms.

    3. The Final Commendation does not come “after the Mass” but is an integral element in the Funeral Mass.

    4. The Order of Christian Funerals does not envisage anyone but the Presider leading the Final Commendation. It would appear contrary both to the spirit and letter of the rubrics for either an assisting minister or a non-concelebrating minister (such as a bishop in choir) to lead this moment in the Funeral Rite.

    5. The honouring of the body with incense is not a sign of blessing but a symbol of the honour with which we continue to regard the body of the deceased. This body was the temple of the Holy Spirit through baptism.

  • FrDamian

    @michael seaman #4

    Thanks for the explanation.

    It still makes no sense to me because neither theologically nor canonically is the local bishop either the pope’s, or worse, the Vatican’s representative in a diocese.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    My wording was badly chosen. I have changed it.

    I was trying to say the archbishop who is currently in charge, appointed by the Vatican. The word REPRESENTATIVE was too confusing.

  • Dan Crawford

    And was the significance of O’Malley’s using Latin for the blessing of the incense during the Commendation?

    I’m surprised the media and the Catholic Communion Cops haven’t gotten embroiled in who should and should not have taken Communion. Perhaps that will come later.

  • Davis

    Once again, note the subtle point that this is the former shepherd of Washington, D.C., who was presiding, not the current archbishop.

    Because McCarrick has a personal relationship with the Kennedy family, while Wuerl doesn’t? Since it wasn’t a mass, there was no obligation to have Wuerl preside?

    Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

  • Benedict Newman

    Recently on EWTN’s The World Over, I heard Raymond Arroyo indicate that it was reported to him that the Kennedy’s had intially requested the funeral to be at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, with the Cardinal himself as main celebrant. According to this report, the Kennedy’s were refused these honors (on account, it is believed, of Kennedy’s support for the child abuse known as abortion). Further, Arroyo said that he heard that Ted Kennedy’s apprarent connection with the Basilica had to be somewhat “contrived,” so as to hide the fact that they had been refused the Cathedral.

    Anyone else hear this??

  • Davis

    As a non-journalist, I’m trying to figure out the journalism question here. You’ve said at Rod Dreher’s site you are “convinced” you can see the church struggling with how to handle Kennedy, yet all you really have is speculation and your own narrative. So what’s a reporter to do with that? How much “Kremlin watching” of a funeral is actually news or worth reporting, especially when it appears to be agenda driven?

    There was no obvious slap at Kennedy, as one would expect. O’Malley was there, in some capacity (where there appears to be little agreement) and there was no evidence that he was doing under duress. I realize that the Catholic hierarchy puts on these kabuki dances a lot, but is it really a journalists job to speculate on what the kabuki dance means? Is it really “newsworthy” to have different partisans interpret the dance?

  • http://www.shoutsinthepiazza.blogspot.com Fr. Selvester

    You’re all making WAY too much over who led what prayers. I would remind all of you that when John Kennedy died and did have a full state funeral it was presided over not by the Archbishop of Washington at that time (Patrick O’Boyle) whose prerogative it was but by Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of BOSTON. That was because he was both a family friend of the Kennedys and a Cardinal. There is a similar situation with Ted Kennedy’s funeral. Cardinal McCarrick is a friend of the family and a Cardinal. Archbishop Wuerl doesn’t have the same relationship to them and is of a lower rank as well. So perhaps that is why he was not asked. Also, at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral then-Archbishop Cooke of New York celebrated the mass but Cardinal Cushing, the family friend and Archbishop of BOSTON, attended in choir and, because he outranked Cooke, sat in the cathedra (bishop’s chair) for the mass.

    In addition, it is common for the local bishop to be at a funeral and not preside. However, when he attends in choir (that’s the way it is supposed to be referred to) that’s not meaningless. He was still the highest ranking prelate in the room and, in Ted Kennedy’s case, the deceased’s own bishop.

    Furthermore, the current Catholic funeral rites ABSOLUTELY envision someone other than the celebrant of the mass presiding over the final commendation. That’s why Cardinal O’Malley then put on a stole, cope and mitre and carried his crozier. In point of fact, “presiding” and being the main celebrant of the mass are NOT synonymous. Another option when a higher-ranking prelate attends a mass that he does not celebrate is to have him present the entire time in cope and mitre in which case he is presiding over the liturgy while not celebrating it. In the case of this funeral O’Malley did attend in choir for most of it but then presided over the final commendation. This is a common practice when a bishop attends a funeral but another priest celebrates the mass.

    Once again, it seemed obvious to me that the Kennedys wanted those priests who were their friends to celebrate the mass and preach. If O’Malley had been the celebrant then, as a Cardinal-Archbishop it would have been inappropriate for him to concelebrate with a lesser-ranking clergyman as main celebrant. So, the option chosen was the correct one.

    If anyone wants to see evidence of a cool attitude on the part of the Church toward Kennedy it could be seen in the fact that none of the many auxiliary bishops of either Boston, Washington or the bishop of Fall River (which takes in Cape Cod) attended any of the services. When John Kennedy was buried and when Bobby Kennedy was buried there were scores of bishops present.

  • Julia

    The journalism angle:

    The MSM prior to the funeral was presenting varying reports on which clergy would take part in the funeral Mass and in what capacity and what that would signify.

    It was relevant to observe after the event occurred who really did take part and what role they played and what was actually said; and to observe how the actual event was portrayed by the MSM which often doesn’t understand Catholic rituals.

  • bob

    Boy, the contents of a letter by a layman to the Pope….Sounds a little like speculating about what the little girl at Fatima wrote; the Last Secret?? Except this matters a whole lot more? the phrase “None of your beeswax” come to mind. The “prayers” that were utterly bizarre were the ones that amounted to yet another oration before the orations as the Kennedy offspring merely quoted Ted and solemnly tacked “Let us pray to the Lord” at the conclusion of each passage:

    One can never be thankful enough for being in the Orthodox Church where litanies are written and not changed.
    I imagine noticing that these were *not* prayers is something way over the head of the press and certainly not to be uttered over the dead body of a Kennedy in Boston.

  • Julia

    Fr. Selvester:

    Interesting that there were no rows of auxiliary bishops.

    Did you notice that the TV didn’t show the communion line.

  • tom ryan

    It is shocking how many post comments on fine details of the Latin Rite, using confident language, but knowing not the rites of the Rite. Go get the current Ceremonial of Bishops from Rome. In its english edition there are fine sections outlining varied ways that a bishop can preside while another priest is celebrant of that same Mass. At #833 we see described exacly what Cardinal Sean did (and regularly does) in Boston. And the act of episcopal presiding has nothing to do with CSSR running Mission Church.

  • Julia

    However, CSSR running Mission Church and not a diocesan pastor probably probably has much to do with the CSSR not following diocesan rules on eulogies at funerals.

    There were battles royale in St Louis between the Jesuits at SLU and Archbishop Burke over liturgy and many other matters. Religious orders typically look to their superiors for their marching orders. Witness the losing battles of the local ordinary in South Bend and the Holy Cross order regarding Notre Dame University.

  • Dan Crawford

    I’m intrigued by the Raymond Arroyo story. So far as I am aware EWTN is not even a fourth-class news organization, and I have watched The World Over enough to realize that Mr. Arroyo does a lot of speculating and wishful thinking. Did he mention his source? Or is he willing to go to jail to protect his source? Who was the reporter who reported to Mr. Arroyo? Perhaps he received a vision or revelation. Perhaps he has an insight – maybe a report – into what happened to the Senator’s soul once he shuffled off this mortal coil.

  • FrMichael

    Thanks, Tom Ryan, for setting the record straight.

    Cardinal O’Malley’s participation in the funeral as the presider (but not celebrant), including his use of choir dress, was fully in accord with the Roman Rite. I take it that the commentator Julia in this thread is unaware of the option of a bishop-presider. There is plenty of other things to be concerned about here without a bogus one raised by a lack of awareness of liturgical rubrics.

  • southern orders

    When a bishop attends a Mass in his diocese, but is not the celebrant, he wears “choir” dress and this indeed is called “presiding,” but not as a “celebrant.”

  • S. Newark

    When,oh when, will you people of the press publish the list of those doubtful souls who transgressed the vatican’s directive to stay away from the communion rail? Make it public as it should be.

  • http://www.savkobabe.blogspot.com Gayle Miller

    All this disputation over miniscule and not so small points of procedure are pointless and silly. Senator Kennedy’s soul was already at its final destination long before his funeral mass was said. And the names of those who took communion are irrelevant. Again – that is something that should be between their conscience and God.

    What are you all trying to prove. That you’re more Catholic than everyone else?

    Senator Kennedy has already faced the incorruptible Judge of us all. And I’m sure his jury was comprised of murdered infants and Ms. Kopechne.

  • Julia

    Fr Michael et al:

    I’m a stickler for words and their meanings – so a few more comments and questions on “presider”.

    Since I’m older than dirt and it’s a new tirm to me, I took “presider” from how it’s used in parish bulletins and announcements at the start of Mass. “Presider” in such circumstances was always the same person as the lead or sole “celebrant”. The word itself seems to indicte the person who is in charge and directing the proceedings – I guess not. There must be sloppy use of the term similar to “Eucharistic Ministers” instead of “Extraodinary Ministers of Holy Communion”. Learned something new here.

    According to the dictionary “presides” means to hold the position of authority, to act as chairman or president; to possess or excercise authority or control.


    So – is the bishop in choir called the “presider” because he takes precedent due to his status – much like the highest ranked cleric is the last one in procession? Or is it like the VP who presides over the Senate, but doesn’t really direct every little thing? Or does the term have a Latin derivation with a different meaning than the English?

    Was Cardinal O’Malley in charge? It didn’t look like it. Is it “a term of art” that only has jargon meaning?

  • Dan Crawford

    A special note of gratitude to Ms. Miller – may we consult her about our own experience of the judgment seat of God? Fortunately, our Heavenly Father is both judge and jury: the Scriptures haven’t so far as I am aware indicated that Ms. Miller functions as his surrogate.

  • David J. White

    That’s not the purpose of a Catholic Requiem Mass on the day of burial.

    Which is irrelevant to the issue at hand, because Sen. Kennedy did not have a “Requiem Mass”. He has a Mass of Christian Burial or Mass of the Resurrection, the Novus Ordo funeral Mass. A Requiem Mass is the traditional Latin-rite funeral Mass, whose introit begins “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine”, and at which the celebrant wears black vestments.

  • http://www.shoutsinthepiazza.blogspot.com Fr. Selvester

    No, it’s not a “mass of Christian Burial” OR a “mass of the Resurrection”. Those are not synonymous, and the Jesuit who said Kennedy’s funeral Mass and called it a “Mass of the Resurrection” got it wrong. The current term for a funeral Mass is Mass of Christian Burial. Period. There are NO other options.

    A Requiem is indeed the name used in the Extraordinary Form. Having a Mass said in Latin doesn’t make it “Latin-Rite”. Everyone who follows the Western Rite of the Roman Catholic Church are members of the Latin Rite even when their Mass is said in the vernacular. Latin Rite doesn’t refer to what language the Mass is in. It is used to distinguish from Eastern Rite (or Byzantine Rite) Catholics in Communion with Rome.

  • tom ryan

    after all the above. I hope eveyone reads the Sept 2 posting of Cardinal Sean at his blog. Explicit and direct comments vis a vis the anger directed at him.

  • David J. White

    Fr. Sylvester,

    I am willing to accept that I was wrong to assume that “Mass of the Resurrection” and “Mass of Christian Burial” are the same thing, although just about every diocesan or religious-order priest I know has used the terms interchangeably.

    I realize that the Western Rite is the Latin Rite, and that Latin rite doesn’t simply refer to the liturgy in Latin. My point in describing the Requiem Mass as the “traditional Latin-Rite funeral Mass” was not to suggest that the current Mass of Christian Burial is not Latin Rite, which it clearly is, but that it is not traditional, which it clearly is not.

    And, God willing, my parents and I will each be buried with a traditional Requiem Mass, NOT a Mass of Christian Burial.