Senator Edward Kennedy was mourned by 1500 attendees Saturday at his funeral in the Mission Hill Basilica of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Boston, along with a world-wide television audience. For many non-Catholic Americans, it was likely the first full-length Catholic Mass they had witnessed. In 40 years there had not been such a public display of the Catholic liturgy on American television, perhaps apart from those occasions when Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II had celebrated Mass while visiting the United States.
Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, presided over the ceremony. He warmly greeted President and Mrs Obama when he arrived, and during the exchange of peace offered good wishes to four presidents who were seated at the front of the beautiful Basilica. Cardinal O'Malley offered the concluding blessing before incensing the casket and commending Senator Kennedy to the procession that would carry his body to Arlington National Cemetery for interment Saturday evening.
The congregation was welcomed by Fr Donald Monan, the president emeritus of Boston College, who leant a somber and wise presence to the occasion. Fr Monan's greeting set the tone for a very prayerful occasion, praising Senator Kennedy and the sense of fellowship created by so many friends coming together.
The Kennedy Family participated in abundance in the service. Caroline Raclin declaimed with great conviction the powerful passage from Romans 8, "For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord."
Fr Mark Hession, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish on Cape Cod, read the Gospel that had come to be so closely identified with Senator Kennedy's life goals. With smiling calm, he read the words from Matthew 25, "I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brethren, you did it for me." Then in the reassuring tone of a confessor, he homilized about the connection between Senator Kennedy's own spiritual life and his advocacy for the common man. It was a measured, warm, brilliant sermon that seemed perfect for the audience and the occasion.
Like the speakers who would follow him, Fr Hession paid special tribute to Mrs Victoria Kennedy. He recalled sitting with them in their home at Hyannis Port and contemplating the beauty of life. He spoke about the dignity of dying in the company of a supportive family--a theme that was richly illustrated by the stream of Kennedy grandchildren, nieces and nephews who marched to the pulpit afterward to offer the individual prayers of the faithful. His grandson, Ted Kennedy III, spoke with great seriousness and conviction as he prayed--using the words so often spoken by Senator Kennedy--that Congress would succeed in assuring that healthcare became a right for every morning, rather than an expensive privilege for the few.
After Communion, three eulogists rose to offer their reflections on Senator Kennedy's life. Ted Kennedy Jr described in emotional terms the inspiration he took from his father after he suffered bone cancer at age 12. Having lost his leg, he lamented his inability to walk on the ice and to go sledding. He recalled his father saying, "We're going to climb this hill together, even if it takes us all day." He told a funny story about being out sailing many Friday afternoons with his father. He said they would stay out late, practicing their sailing maneuvers, long after the dinner had gotten cold. "Dad, why are we always the last boat out here?" he remembered asking. Senator Kennedy responded, "Because the other sailors are all much smarter than we are. But we will work harder and be better prepared than any of them!"
Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) offered a similar reflection on his experience with asthma as a child, saying that when the family traveled he often got the best room ("non-smoking, hypoallergenic"), along with the full attention of his father who cared for him at night. His words yielded to those of Barack Obama. In the confident, calm fashion for which he has become known, President Obama offered a genteel portrait of a man who had been so generous with gifts and cards, and who had been a mentor and an inspiration. He said, "The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy's shoulders because of who he was, but he surpassed them all because of who he became."
President Obama concluded, "Ted Kennedy has gone home now, guided by his faith and by the light of those that he has loved and lost. At last he is with them once more, leaving those of us who grieve his passing with the memories he gave, the good that he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image -- the image of a man on a boat; white mane tousled; smiling broadly as he sails into the wind, ready for whatever storms may come, carrying on toward some new and wondrous place just beyond the horizon. May God Bless Ted Kennedy, and may he rest in eternal peace."
The ceremony was one of great beauty, in a Basilica that had come to be associated with healing in its 131 years, and subsequently had helped spawn a fleet of Harvard-affiliated hospitals and the medical school nearby. The church serves as home to one of the original artistic renderings of one of Catholicism's most recognizable images: Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The image idealizes the mother and child, flanked by the angel saints Michael and Gabriel. St Michael is of course God's enforcer, and St Gabriel the patron of diplomats-- balancing principled conviction with humanizing flexibility, a theme to which so many of Senator Kennedy's friends had attested in the days leading up to Saturday's funeral.
The music was superb, featuring an offertory reflection by Yo-Yo Ma. During Communion, Cesar Franck's Panis Angelicus was rendered by tenor Placido Domingo, with the same strength and spiritual resonance as his performance of it at Pope John Paul II's Mass in New York's Central Park in 1995. At the end of the Mass, there was a stunning bel canto performance of the Schubert Ave Maria by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham of the Metropolitan Opera, a Midland TX native who had performed at the second Bush Inauguration.
Senator Kennedy was a very public Catholic, and the Mass of Bereavement attested to the central place his faith had played in both his own spiritual life and his lifelong commitment to the common good.