"The Church is always her best at a funeral," a priest once said to me, and those true words echoed in my memory as I watched the funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy. The Catholic funeral Mass is so beautiful, not least because it is so familiar, not really different from other Masses. In the face of grief, we crave the familiar, we do not want to improvise, we want strong anchors and traditions are strong anchors.
But, the beauty of the funeral Mass also consists in the fact that the world can only look back upon a man’s life and the Church, and only the Church, attests to the future destiny of the deceased with Christ. Eulogies are fine, and at the wake the night before the funeral, the stories about Sen. Kennedy were hilarious and inspiring and heartfelt and wonderful, but they all looked backward. For the world, death is a wall. For the Church, death is a door.
Kennedy’s funeral Mass, however, had some very specific beauty. The slightly kitschy Victorian art of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was beautiful, attesting to the truth that a faith that does not produce kitsch is a dead faith. Ditto the Victorian organ in the balcony with a diapason chorus that was as rich as chocolate cake. The cello piece at the Offertory was hauntingly ethereal and while I prefer the Massanet "Ave Maria" to the Schubert, the mezzo who sang the Schubert version sang it as gloriously as I have ever heard it sung. The collected crutches at the altar of Our Lady must move even those who have never prayed the "Hail Mary." All this beauty matters. It was Luther, not Trent, that denied the possibility of a Christian aesthetic. Once to teach his students about the nature of sin, Don Luigi Giussani took a bouquet of flowers from the desk alongside his lectern, threw them on the floor and stomped on them. "THAT," he said, "is sin. The destruction of the beautiful."
But, there was one other aspect of the Senator’s funeral that was especially important. In the comments of his two sons, and in the homily by their parish priest, the Kennedy family gave a beautiful, and timely, witness to the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the dying. One son said he had learned more from his father in this past year of illness and decline than in all the previous years. Everyone attested to the love and care shown by Kennedy’s wife Vicki for her ailing husband. In his brief remarks at the conclusion of the funeral, Cardinal O’Malley specifically mentioned how that love attested to the dignity of human life in all its frailty.
In the past month, with all the lies and nonsense about death panels and pulling the plug on grandma, it has been a bit difficult to combat the lies but also bear witness to the Church’s legitimate concern and worry about end-of-life issues, about the way the phrase "quality of life" can become chilling and eugenic, about not only the dignity of the dying, but their unique capacity to teach the rest of us about the depths of human love. Only those who love suffer, and only those who suffer discover the deepest face of love.
Saturday, the Kennedy family witnessed to these great teachings of our faith about the dignity of the aged and the dying in a way that no words of mine could achieve. The late Senator and his family, whose lives are so public, shared their faith with the nation. That is no small gift.