There it was on non-stop television: the Catholic rite of the Mass of the Resurrection. True, the networks responded because a celebrity was being buried: Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, last of three brothers who have left an enormous political legacy to America. But our Catholic liturgy was not invented for celebrities and this mass in a Roxbury church was not very much different from the funeral for any Catholic. So, did Kennedy’s liberal politics interrupt a ritual meant to unite and not divide?
I am not one of those who think that religion and politics should never mix. Catholicism is one of the most socializing of Christian denominations, tinting public celebrations with shades of political meaning. The scholars say ritual depends upon symbols, gestures, artistic design and appeal to aesthetic sensitivity. More than words or written texts, symbols resonate in the far reaches of the soul and human emotions. Long after people have forgotten the words, they remember sights and sounds. These often serve more to motivate the public around political goals than political speeches or documents. Probably few of us can cite any part of the wording of the Civil Rights Act, for example, but we remember the photograph of tens of thousands gathered in Washington, or the melody of “We Shall Overcome,” or the sermon that began with “I have a dream…”
The Mass of Resurrection for Ted Kennedy was thus an event that featured political persuasion in ritual. Some protested the celebration of such a full liturgy in the funeral of a public figure whose sins had been so visible. Kennedy’s support for abortion was the key issue for such protesters. Such a line of protest, however, would likely have denied St. Augustine a funeral mass because he fathered a child out of wedlock. Besides, if Kennedy had not been reconciled in the months of his fatal illness, neither his pastor nor his Archbishop nor his pope would have graced the ceremony as they did.
I think Catholicism is a religion for sinners: we stay in the church because we are imperfect and need God’s grace. In that sense, Ted Kennedy — the public sinner — needed the Church more than most. And anyway, a funeral mass will help him get out of Purgatory faster! I my opinion, Ted’s stance on the legality of abortion had more to do with his brother John’s 1960 formulation about Catholicism and politics than with more recent Catholic theology. It left a lot to be desired, but that is why he needs our prayers.
Before the end of the mass, President Obama delivered a eulogy privileged with the pulpit. As he had demonstrated in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Obama understands Catholic decorum. Prudently, he spoke about Kennedy and not about his own challenge on health-care reform.
The overt political message came from the ritual itself. For instance, the three scripture readings echoed Kennedy’s agenda. The loss of two brothers by assassins’ bullets was one of his tests by purifying fire (Wisdom 3:1-9). He refused to separate himself from Catholicism (Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39) even though some of the “powers and principalities” of the Catholic hierarchy would gladly have bid him adieu. His legislative agenda came from Jesus’ instruction for how to measure a life — feeding the hungry and healing the sick (Mt. 25:31-32A, 34-40). These readings were entirely appropriate. They had political implications, I think, only because religion has political implications.
The overt political statements came from the mouths of children who paraded before the microphones at the Prayer of the Faithful. Each petition was worded with quotes from a Kennedy speech. The most political asked us to pray that health care be recognized as a “right, not a privilege.” Yet that petition was also the most Catholic, echoing passionate statements from popes and bishops to “take back our government” and make it an instrument of Catholic obligations to make God’s Kingdom come.
This funeral mass showed that with growing boldness, many Catholics are professing our gospel commitment to social justice just as loudly as others speak on abortion. Both are Catholic passions.
PS – The Cardinal Archbishop explained the reason for a public Catholic funeral: