On Friday, Catholic Democrats prayerfully remembered and honored the life of President John F. Kennedy, an American hero and the nation’s first Catholic president, whose legacy cannot be separated from his faith.
David O’Brien, the noted Catholic historian, has penned an inspired piece for US Catholic Magazine on President Kennedy’s legacy. During this weekend, we want to share his eloquent reflection on JFK with you. We feel his words speak for so many of us whose lives were touched by one of our nation’s greatest presidents.
By David O’Brien
John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election was a moment of arrival of American Catholics into the mainstream of American society. His eloquent inaugural, with Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing offering the prayer, seemed to fulfill the promise of American Catholic history. I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1960 and like many of my generation, I fell in love with John Kennedy. His intelligence, grace, and willingness to confront hard truths (movement on civil rights, resistance to military options during Cuban missile crisis, his American University address) and, yes, his “style” especially, for me, at press conferences, drew me in.
Then, after a thousand days, came the assassination-an experience of what Catholic peace leader James Douglass, drawing on Thomas Merton, calls “the unspeakable.” That experience, over days of national solidarity in grief, took place amid an amazingly integrated series of rituals at once American and Catholic. For those of us descended from European Catholic immigrants, this was the completion of the American Catholic journey: We were no longer outsiders, but insiders. Later we would face deeper truths about racism and war and nuclear weapons and abortion, and we would never know that integration again. Experience, not ideology, forced reconsideration of our American and Catholic commitments-and responsibilities. It is not too much to say that a long history of American-Catholic negotiation aimed at liberation and integration-liberty and justice for all, including us-ended in November, 1963.