As if Ted Kennedy didn't have enough Catholic mojo going his way after today's funeral mass in Boston, the burial at Arlington this evening held another surprise: The contents of a moving exchange of letters between Kennedy and Pope Benedict XVI -- correspondence that touched on Kennedy's deep faith as well as public policy battles including abortion and universal health care.
It was known that Kennedy had written a personal letter to the pontiff, and had President Obama carry it to the pope when Obama visited the Vatican in July. But the contents of the letter were unknown, and it was reported that Benedict XVI had responded but the substance was also unknown.
At the interment at Arlington, retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick used the brief rite as an opportunity to read much of the contents of the two letters, which revealed something about both senator and pope. Kennedy's letter was in both a plea and a brief for himself -- as well as a vouching for Obama. He began:
"Most Holy Father, I asked President Obama to personally hand deliver this letter to you. As a man of deep faith himself, he understands how important my Roman Catholic faith is to me, and I am deeply grateful to him.
"I hope this letter finds you in good health. I pray that you have all of God's blessings as you lead our Church and inspire our world during these challenging times.
"I am writing with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines. I was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago, and, although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life.
"I have been blessed to be a part of a wonderful family, and both of my parents, particularly my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives. That gift of faith has sustained, nurtured and provided solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path."
President Barack Obama delivers the eulogy at the funeral of former Sen. Edward Kennedy Saturday. "Ted Kennedy's life's work was not to champion those with wealth or power or special connections," Obama said. "It was to give a voice to those who were not heard, to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity, to make real the dream of our founding."
Alex Brandon, AP
Alex Brandon, AP
Then Kennedy goes on to defend his public record -- a last apologia from a controversial Catholic figure. And while he avoids altogether the pro-choice record that was the source of his greatest tension with the hierarchy, he does vow that (as Obama has) that any health care reform package would include conscience protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures that would violate their beliefs, such as abortion:
"I want you to know, Your Holiness, that in my nearly 50 years of elective office, I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I've worked to welcome the immigrant, fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and been the focus of my work as a United States Senator.
"I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health care field and will continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.
"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. I continue to pray for God's blessings on you and our Church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me."
Two weeks later, the pope responded, writing, as usual, through a senior Vatcan official:
"The Holy Father has read the letter which you entrusted to President Barack Obama, who kindly presented it to him during their recent meeting. He was saddened to know of your illness, and has asked me to assure you of his concern and his spiritual closeness. He is particularly grateful for your promise of prayers for him and for the needs of the universal Church.
"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. He invokes upon you the consolation and peace promised by the Risen Savior to all who share in His sufferings and trust in His promise of eternal life.
"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."
Benedict wisely, and predictably, rendered no judgment on Kennedy's public record. But his charitable and heartfelt expressions of support and prayer are sure to to be a solace in liberal quarters. In remarks prepared for the interment service, Cardinal McCarrick was at his usual pastoral self, offering condolences to Kennedy's widow, Vicki, and all the family -- and adding a story of his own that seemed to put in perspective the entire saga of Kennedy's often tricky relationship to the church:
"They called him the Lion of the Senate and indeed that is what he was," McCarrick said. "His roar and his zeal for what he believed made a difference in our nation's life."
"Sometimes, we who were his friends and had affection for him would get mad at him when he roared at what we believed was the wrong side of an issue which was important to us, but we always were touched by his passion for the underdog, for the rights of working people, for better education and for adequate health care for every American," the cardinal added. "His legacy will surely place him among the dozen or so greats in the history of the Senate of the United States."
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