Missing memory

JFK funeral
What surprises you about St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington is the color: the red-brick exterior, the salmon-colored marble inside, the bright mosaic of the church’s patron.  The hues are unexpected for those of a certain age, as they say, who know this church from grainy clips of shadowy black and white.

The funeral Mass for President Kennedy was celebrated in St. Matthew’s on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after his assassination in Dallas.  That’s why most people visit the cathedral, because of its place in history.  Just outside the sanctuary is a marker, inlaid in the marble floor, indicating where the casket rested during the liturgy.

Much is being remembered and even some new details are being reported this month in books, TV documentaries and other assorted commemorations of the tragedy’s 50th anniversary.  While too young to remember the day, the Kennedy Assassination remains a touchstone event in American history for me.  The horrific images captured by an amateur photographer; the Vice President raising his hand to take the oath while the First Lady looks on; Walter Cronkite taking off his heavy, black-framed glasses and looking at the clock, telling the nation their president had died.  No matter our age we’ve seen the images so many times that it’s as if we were there.

Lost in much of the remembering over the years is the funeral Mass.  It came near the start of the Second Vatican Council, just a few months after the death of Pope John XXIII who had urged that the windows of the Church be opened, fresh air allowed in.  He’d put in motion processes that would change the way Catholics worship and how we interact with and immerse ourselves in the world.  A Catholic U.S. president was not incidental to all of that.

President Kennedy’s funeral, part of a weekend of TV news coverage, was one of the first experiences non-Catholics might have had of a Catholic Mass.  These were rituals people had heard about, wondered about, or maybe even were suspicious of, what with their strange language, wafting smoke and curious postures and gestures.

What I discovered through a bit of reading, viewing some black-and-white TV coverage on YouTube and talking with some friends who remember that time, is that the funeral Mass got lost amid more memorable and emotional moments and images.  An astute journalist-friend with a pretty sharp memory, says he remembers the body lying in state at the Capitol, a caisson transporting the casket through the streets of Washington, the rider-less horse, but he has no recollection of the Mass.  He also remembers, as do most of us from photographs if not first-hand TV viewing, the president’s son offering a heart-breaking salute, which occurred just outside the cathedral.

Part of the explanation for the clouded funeral Mass memories might be the liturgy itself.  Mrs. Kennedy asked for a “Low Mass,” an option at the time that included no music.  Nor was there a homily or eulogy.  Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, the presider, did as priests did then, standing with his back to the people — and the cameras — much of the time mumbling words at such a speed that even God might  have wondered what he was saying.  Near the end of Mass, an auxiliary bishop read extensive passages from scripture and Kennedy speeches, including the entire text of his inaugural address.

None of it was particularly riveting, emotional or liturgical.  Missing were many of the elements we associate with a Catholic funeral and which convey the nature of why we celebrate them.  Prayers, if they were translated for the TV audience, would have spoken of resurrection and eternal life, as well as judgment and a hope that the deceased would escape the divine wrath.  It could be argued that the subdued, almost silent liturgy was well suited to the state of the Kennedy family and the nation on that day, but the funeral Mass’ words and rituals are meant to convey faith, not an emotional state.  What Catholics believe, what is fundamental to our lives as Christians was most likely lost on nearly everyone.

Cardinal Cushing spoke of this a few years later in an interview archived with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.  “It’s too bad that on that occasion we didn’t have the vernacular (English) in the Mass because the Mass was televised throughout most of the world …, but I had to follow the rules and regulations.  I remarked at the end of the Mass: ‘I hope some day this liturgy of the church will be, in greater part at least, in (English) so people will know what is being said.’”

That day would come within just a few years and, regrettably, there would be other Catholic funeral Masses for the American public to witness on national television.  They would be better understood and maybe instill deeper memories and better awareness, and yet none would compare in historic import to what was celebrated that day in 1963.  Cardinal Cushing recalls, “Then at the end of the Mass we went to the grave; his body was put to rest; the perpetual flame was lighted; Jacqueline received the American flag that covered the casket; and the darkest day in this generation was over.” TL


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