Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ted's Funeral - Post Mortem

I watched every minute of Ted Kennedy's funeral. For me, it was a validation of everything I hold dear. As I've explained below, I was personally gratified that he chose Mission Church for the ceremony, given that it was my mother's childhood church and the place I prayed for her when she was sick.

But what struck me most was the humility of the memorial. To the untrained eye, it might sound odd to call a memorial, held in a "Basilica," and attended by four presidents, vast numbers of luminaries and Boston's Cardinal humble. Not to mention having Yo Yo Ma and Placido Domingo provide the music.

But on those elements of the service which contained the most meaning, Ted chose the humble option in almost every case. First, consider the church. Setting aside my personal connection, it is important to understand where Mission Church sits. It is in Roxbury, the poorest section of Boston. And while Mission Hill is coming back economically, it remains, at best, a working class neighborhood, which it was when my mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, grew up there.

Then there was the Mass. Again, it may have looked majestic, but it was not a "High Mass." The music was awe-inspiring, but, significantly, none of the prayers during the ceremony were sung. That makes it a low Mass. And, while the Cardinal was in attendance, he did not say the Mass. In fact, Kennedy's local parish priest in Hyannis was the celebrant, with a number of concelebrants, none of whom were high in the Church hierarchy. One of them, Fr. Percy DaSilva, is a former priest in my church of Blessed Sacrament. Sen. Kennedy was a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament some years ago and I would see him occasionally at Mass, usually at the children's Mass. Fr. DaSilva is a diminutive priest from India with the heart of a lion who was beloved by all in the parish, particularly the children. He loved my daughter Bridget and she him. He made national news when he indignantly called from the pulpit for Cardinal Law's resignation during the abuse scandal at a time when the Church hierarchy was still standing behind the Cardinal. In addition to his love for my daughter, the other thing I most appreciated about him is that while he preached the Church's doctrine condemning abortion with conviction, he never, ever mentioned abortion in a sermon without also denouncing the death penalty. His presence on the altar spoke volumes about Ted's priorities.

Of course, within the constraints of a low Mass, you can still reach the heights. Most people would love to have the President of the United States do the eulogy at their funeral. But it was the music that made the ceremony transcendent. I have never heard Ave Maria sung so beautifully as by Susan Graham. It literally took my breath away. And Placido Domingo singing during the Communion, well, what can you say? At the Capitol memorial later in the day, I spoke about the service to Congressman Jim McGovern from Worcester who said, "Receiving Communion with Placido Domingo singing, I felt like this must be what heaven is like."

Fundamentally, as I've noted below, it was the Irishness of it all that so moved me. Forgive my paean to Irish culture, but I do believe that the Irish have a special awareness of human frailty. It brings out both the best and worst in us. On the downside, it makes us somewhat mordant, fatalistic and even reckless. I'll never forget hearing one of my uncles say at a family gathering, "I believe that life is a vale of tears, with a few bright spots thrown in." I was about eight years old and that comment has stuck with me all my life. That view, I believe, contributes to the kind of behavior that Ted exhibited in his younger days, the drinking and womanizing. You figure you don't have much time, so make the most of it while you can. For those that survive long enough to gain some wisdom, the Irish mystical traditions kick in. These have been with the Irish from pagan times. Since St. Patrick, it inspires a deep devotion to the Catholic Church, which provides hope in this "vale of tears."

Of course, it's more than physical frailty, though, God knows, Ted saw the consequences of that with all the tragedy in his family. We all knew about the tragedies of his own generation. But I never fully knew about those in his immediate family. Three of his kids faced life-threatening disease at some point in their lives. There is no greater emotional trauma one can face than the risk of losing a child and he faced it three times.

But human frailty involves moral frailty, as well. And that's where the humility comes in. It makes you less judgmental of the failings of others when you see the moral frailty that is within yourself. I have no doubt that Mary Jo Kopechne's memory haunted Ted to his dying day. Recognizing that - and others of his moral failings, made him, I believe, a more humble man, which is hard to be when you are a U.S. Senator, particularly a Kennedy. This moral humility was reflected in his letter to the Pope where he writes, "I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path."

Clearly, we should take the advice he offered in his eulogy of his brother, Bobby, and "not enlarge him in death beyond what he was in life." But I have to say, more than any other other event of its kind, I do feel changed a bit by these memorials to Teddy. He does provide a model for living a good life and the hope that it's never too late. When he was my age, he was still "Wild Teddy," drinking and carousing with Chris Dodd. And yet he changed in a very deep way and died at some peace. It's a story of redemption that offers hope for us all.

And, finally, he vindicated another quality of being Irish in which I believe strongly. No culture puts on a better funeral than the Irish. I think it comes with that fatalism mentioned above. I recently bade farewell to my mother and I have to say that we touched, in her memorial, many of the same themes that were explored in Ted's memorial, the music, the laughter, the melancholy. We didn't have Placido Domingo, but we did have the singer from a local parish church sing Our Lady of Knock at the same place during the Mass, which generated a lot of tears. And there was singing and laughter at the post-funeral celebration.

So, goodbye Ted. You didn't know me. But you made me proud to be a Boston Irish Catholic Liberal Democrat. And, excuse me while I check on my kids.

Rest in Peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You've put to words intangibles that often elude the limits of language. Nicely done.