"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.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 9/3/2009 - 8:24pm
I am not an attorney, however I have made abortion juriprudence a serious study (which is more than I can say for most who post on the topic).  The jurisdictional grounds are rather plainly stated in Roe itself - that states are not the arbiter of equal protection.  Rather, the federal Congress and the judiciary are under the 14th Amendment.  Opposing the judicial overturning of Roe can supported on these grounds alone without supporting a right to abortion, especially given the effect it would have on other aspects of equal protection law.  Constitutional historians, especially Garrett Epps, who wrote Democracy Reborn, which is a history of the enactment and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, is in agreement with this interpretation of the Amendment.  Indeed, calls out Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Renquist by name as wrong on this issue.
Anonymous | 9/2/2009 - 8:18pm
Mr. Bindner, are you an attorney?  Your ceaseless defense of Roe - - now on "jurisdictional grounds" - - leads me to believe that you are not.  But I am just curious.
       What are the "jurisdictional grounds" upon which Roe was decided?  
Anonymous | 9/2/2009 - 10:52am
Alle, we pray for social justice in the Catholic Church.  While some were badly written, others were spot on.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 4:02pm
Despite my disclaimer at the end of my earlier post, I love that I am labelled a ''partisan'' ''right-winger'' for my comments.  I think Jen's comment about applying a Catholic Pol test to some of the comments is on target.
Again, I am not a Kennedy hater; like someone else said, the coverage actually did change my opinion of him from being a sleazy politician to a man of decency, immense generosity and faith.  I make no judgment whatsoever about the state of the man's faith or soul (''Judge not, lest by that same standard ye be judged'').  BUT that doesn't change the fact that he was not following the Church's teaching with respect to abortion; to the extent he wanted to show himself a devout Catholic, that is squarely inconsistent.  Whether we agree or not, the Church teaches quite clearly that legalized abortion is a moral and political tragedy of a fundamental nature, i.e. it threatens the entire social order, a moral social order that Eunice Shriver saw as entirely consistent (again, I commend Ross Douthat's column).  Nor does it sweep away the inconsistency that anytime Bush used the word God he was denounced by Liberals for ripping down the wall between Church and state, but it seems ok for prominent Liberals to wrap themselves in the language of faith when it suits them.  You can't have your cake and eat it too.  My Catholic faith makes my support for free market capitalism very uncomfortable for me; I think its only fair to hold Catholic Liberals to that same standard.  But to wrap yourself in the faith and say look at all I did for the vulnerable, and totally ignore a major issue for society that the Church is outspoken on is simply inconsistent.  And to say that doesn't, at least in my opinion, make one a foaming right-wing hater NOR require a full out effort to portray Kennedy as the second coming to counter that.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 3:14pm
Personally I think there should be more use of Latin at the Requiem Mass. There are beautiful songs such as Mozart's Laudate Dominum, Faure's In Paradisum, as well as reciting the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei in Latin. For a full disclosure I'm not a TLM (Tridentine) freak, but I do feel that we need more reference during Mass and more use of Latin (in Novus Ordo Missae context).
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 2:39pm
Conservatives are furious about all of this, but that is not surprising.  These ''religionist'' would do well to remember Dorothy Day's comment: ''God help us if we all truly got what we deserved.''
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 2:13pm
The more I read the letter the more it seems to betray a profound confusion on the part of Kennedy.  Beyond asking for spiritual help, which is fine and touching, he went on to give a laundry list of his accomplishments  - - while incredulously stating that he had always respected and believed the fundamental teachings of the Church. Everyone knows that isn't true, including the Pope.  
It seems that Ted could never really confront the horrors legalized abortion has wrought on this country, and this country's women.  It's amazing the lengths the human mind will go to gloss over a guilty conscience.  
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 2:08pm

To the three right-wingers making the above postings, would you please pipe down? We may disagree with whichever actions Kennedy did in his lifetime, not just limited to his stand on abortion, but also his treatment of women and some possible legal misdeeds he committed (remember Chappaquiddick and William Kennedy Smith's affair). Having said so, he has clearly repented from his actions in the last 2 decades of his life, as could be seen from the letter he wrote to the Holy Father, and I assume he has received sacrament of confession as well as Extreme Unction just before he passed on, so he died in good grace and in communion with the Church.
My grandma often said that we should not dwell on the possible sins and misdeeds of a person who already dies and has confessed his sins, so I hope to those of you who still like to trash Mr. Kennedy, remember what Jesus himself said about trashing other people: let him who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7). And remember also the parable of the sheeps and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46): it is those who has done works such as feed the hungry and cloth the naked who will receive the Kingdom of Heaven, not those who like to thrash other people but does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to help his fellow mankind. Finally, remember also the Parable of the Pharisee and the Sinner. My question: who is the sinner and who is the Pharisee here?

Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 2:02pm
Although never a big fan of the Kennedys, I must say that the articles pulling together Ted's life work in the Senate and the fact that he was a practicing Catholic has given me a new appreciation of him.  I've always agreed with his politics, but felt that his drinking, partying image (well into middle age), plus the annulment of his 20-plus year marriage (nice how that worked out), made him a Catholic hypocrite.  But I had that all wrong.  He never moralized, but apparently kept the faith amidst his own failings, which is what we're all supposed to do, right?  As for the annulment - well, maybe they're easier to get in some dioceses, and who of us wouldn't take advantage of that if needed?  And finally, when will the pro-lifers get some perspective?  Put your time and money into affordable day care centers and other post-natal services, not feel-good outings to Washington every January and single-issue criticisms of politicians in a secular society where abortion is legal, and watch the abortion rates go down.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 2:52pm
I concur with Josh - enough already with the adoration of Ted Kennedy, who was a mere man.  I didn't even think much of the funeral mass - color me all intolerant and stuff, but I thought a mass was supposed to focus on Christ.  And the intercessory prayers were appalling political campaigns.  Brother, Puh-leese, enough already.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 1:15pm
Ricky and Josh, I wish you could have let go of your political partisanship for one hour.  The Mass was, if anything, healing - transcending and diluting our partisan differences, at least for that blessed hour.  It was a reminder what ''Catholic'' means and is.  It was a time to be more like Mary than Martha.     
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 11:52am
The traditional purpose of the Mass of Christian Burial is to pray for the soul of the departed, not celebrate his life. The focus is to be on Jesus Christ, not the deceased.
Kennedy's funeral didn't pass on this score.
And those intercessions...MSW, can you just apply the "What if a GOP pol had done this" to everything you say about Democrats? What if a Catholic GOP pol who, say, had been a rabid proponent of the death penalty died and his grandkids were enlisted to read the intercessions with a political tinge, and..
..you would be throwing FITS.
As Josh said, we get it. You love Democrats. Check.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 11:16am
Well said Josh.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 10:56am
Wonderfully said.  The Catholic faith was displayed in such a meaningful way.  The general public was able to hear how wonderful the faith can be when it is actually lived out in someone's life.  My prayer is that people heard the real message and are inspired to follow the teaching of Jesus our Savior.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 9:59am
All these external trappings are superficial.  What matters is when Ted Kennedy is alone with God in the tribunal of his conscience.  It does no good to ignore his support for laws or judgments that resulted into 50 million murders because, he will have to answer God for those.  It does no good to silence those who bring this up because, others who are on the same path may continue the same atrocity.  BTW, I am an independent.  I supported  JFK & Carter.  So party politics has nothing to do with the solicitude for the souls of the law makers and those who are yet to be destroyed by the culture of death.
Anonymous | 9/1/2009 - 3:39pm
Senator Kennedy's opinion on Roe v. Wade has almost no impact on the availability of abortion in America.  There have been, at most, 3 votes for overturning Roe.  Bork might have been number 4, replacing Kennedy.   However, Bork was not blocked only for Roe v. Wade, so you can't really find any way that Teddy Kennedy contributed to the continuation of abortion at all.  His opinion on the issue is no more important than mine, or that of August Fagothy, who wrote the Catholic Ethics book that most lawyers and seminarians use.  Fagothy was not pro-abortion, however he did reason that one need not deny support of the state due to the legality of abortion in a pluralistic society.  Cuomo and Biden, and most Catholic politicians, have gone with that line.  I disagree with it, since I believe Roe v. Wade was rightly decided on jurisdictional grounds - and that the current Republican and National Right to Life Committee is unconscionable since it the intention is to thwart federal power in equal protection matters (from birth control to gay rights and possibly even some aspects of race relations).  Some have rather stupidly compared a stance on abortion to a stance on racism, without realizing that their abortion stance reopens the door to systematic racism and sexism.
 
As to the funeral Mass itself - I was quite moved.  We Catholics do funerals well.  The songs and the eulogies did what they were designed to do, make the loved ones cry.  I doubt many of my fellow posters actually watched the funeral (so I am not sure why they are posting), however I doubt the emotional health of anyone who saw Teddy Jr.'s sharing on being helped up the icy hill by his father and did not shed a tear or five.
 
Teddy Kennedy was a fellow human being, a brother Catholic and an acquaintence of mine.  He treated all people decently, from Presidents to Republican interns (like me).  If everyone on the other side of the aisle in all manner of public life did as well as he did in this matter, the debate would be much less caustic.  As it is, many on that side haven't even demostrated that they know the teaching that you do not speak ill of the dead.  Shame.
Anonymous | 8/31/2009 - 10:45am
Alright, enough already.  I get that you and Fr. Martin really really really REALLY like Ted Kennedy, but the constant paens to him on this page are starting to get as ridiculous as the diatribes from those who are convinced he was Satan incarnate.  He was neither as good nor as bad as I think the 24/7 newscycle has portrayed him.  Apparently he was a very complex man, like all of us.
And I do have to say that I thought the Intercessions were a bit much with all the quotes from his speechs that were made into petitions (esp the ''gay vs straight'' bit) - and they only highlighted his inconsistency when it came to abortion because they didn't even mention it (an inconsistency that Ross Douthat points out in his wonderful Times column this am re: Eunice Shriver's pro-life commitment).  I mean if they're privately against abortion, as he said he was, why couldn't they pray for the unborn at his funeral, esp at a Catholic mass in a Catholic church?  I think its time for Catholic Liberals to start calling the bluff of Catholic Democrats with this whole ''private conscience/public duty'' bit.  Being Catholic has to mean a lot more than being able to have a letter hand delivered to the Pope by the President of the US.  And no, I'm not a right-winger who thinks he should have been denied a Catholic funeral.