Talk to My Papal Hand, Just Not of History

O, where to begin?


Here.  (Get snacks, tis a long one, I’m afraid)

Perhaps, as I near death, maybe I’ll write a letter to Pope Benedict, too, as I see the beginnings of that unmistakable white light through the thicket of my life’s choices.

I’ll be on a morphine drip, if that’s the case, is all I can say.

The process of watching Camelot be buried once and for all this past week has taken its toll on this senior citizen and nothing dug the spade more finally into the dirt or severed the artery of illusion and dream more for this Bostonian, than the final moments of the interment at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cardinal McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, DC,  read the Senator’s letter to Pope Benedict as well as part of Pope Benedict’s official response into the dying light of this somber yet remarkable three day journey.  (Both the letter and the response can be read or viewed HERE)

I was educated in Catholic schools and colleges and graduate schools.  I lived outside of Boston and am from an Irish Catholic family complete with fabled flaws and gifts.   I know the territory, as once I was a participating member of the Church and know the territory now, as one who is not.

But, thankfully, (and as you’ll see there are just so many buts)  my morphine induced letter won’t be shared with the world at my interment as Senator Kennedy’s letter was on Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery.

To me, it was the one final convulsion of the illusion and dream of Camelot and the only discordant note played out in three long days of public ceremony and private grief.

The senator was so clearly dying and struggling with fears known only to those at the end of life.  To my ear, his letter was agonizingly private, and, ironically, needlessly public.  He was a private citizen facing his mortality.  He appeared to concede his flaws as well as some of his political choices to Pope Benedict, by highlighting only those causes he knew in concert with the Catholic religion and totally leaving out those that did not.  I was left wondering if he was ashamed now of those beliefs, just as we know he was ashamed of Chappaquiddick, Palm Beach Easter weekends and such, or just trying to simply bugle, like all good politicians, those notes of the Papal sheet music that he felt would be heard.

In my opinion, he was tooting his horn to the wrong man.

I cannot shake the fact that he was writing a letter requesting prayer from a Pope who had just this year agreed to reverse a previous Pope’s excommunication edict of a group of priests who’d defied papal authority and legitimacy.  With Benedict’s reversal, I now call it “Excommunication,  A La Carte”.

The living group of priests had now agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Papal authority, if not history so they were invited back into the Church by Pope Benedict.  One of the four recycled priests, British born Richard Williamson, was quoted on Swedish TV as disavowing the Holocaust, denying gas ovens– in other words, a spokesman in 2009 for the gnarly twisted  minds who deny the Holocaust.

What?  No.  Yes.  Hmm…

How does this make sense?   There’s a priest shortage, after all.  Too many child molesters sidelined and out of commission one cause.   Solution?  We need more priests making a sign of the cross and denying reality? Done.

But, hey–once again.  Tsk. Tsk.  You may say.  That’s non-believer, me, just being picky.

To all accounts, Edward Kennedy was a true and devout believer.  Maybe he thought if Pope Benedict could live with Williamson on the roster, a Kennedy would look good?  I simply don’t know.

So, was this an exquisitely personal and final example of Kennedy’s fabled ability to legislate and compromise?  Strategy being to just leave aside the elephant in the room, in his case–abortion, stem cell research, a basketful of personal failings-and ask simply with a straight face, the equivalent of “Other than that, how’d you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Perhaps,  in his final months of illness, he may have been on heavy medication and was disoriented?

Maybe Senator Kennedy thought he was writing to Pope John XXIII and not Benedict?

Now, I can see penning that Pope a letter asking for absolution and prayer, even though he is long dead.

I didn’t need, or as it turned out, even want to hear Kennedy’s letter, but the Papal response did not surprise me.   The surprise came that the Senator and his widow apparently thought it sounded like absolution and kinship.

The Papal letter was penned by a representative, not the Pope, and to me was the apostolic equivalent of “Talk to the Papal Hand” and detached popespeak of  ‘good luck with that end of life dying thing and don’t let the door hit you in the rear end on the way out.’

That it was brought out into the fading light of such a somber day suggests Kennedy and his widow read it and heard it quite differently than I did, and I suspect, my need for absolution at the end of my life shall simply overtake logic as well.

The Kennedy version of Catholicism (and indeed many American Catholics) dubbed “cafeteria Catholicism” for all its pick and choose features has been out of fashion with the Vatican for many years, but the Boston clergy periodically do not get that memo.  Senator Kennedy appeared to be aware enough of the seismic shift, though, to ask President Barack Obama to be his postman to Pope Benedict in Rome in July, 2009 rather that Rev. Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston–so that tells me he was at least aware of the shifting grounds.

How could he not be?

Two years ago in 2007 the Vatican apparently reversed its decision to allow the annulment to the Senator’s nephew, Joseph P Kennedy, of his marriage of twelve years and two children.  It was granted to the former Congressman, just as it had been granted to the Senator for his first marriage to Joan, the mother of his three children, in order that each Kennedy might remarry with a priest officiating and still receive the sacraments.

Annulment is viewed glibly by outsiders as the Catholic version of getting a divorce.  Millions of Catholics use this official process, mostly American Catholics, according to news reports.

Suffice to say, divorce is a no-no in the Catholic religion and Rome developed this process which allows the Catholic petitioner, for a fee, to ask a Roman tribunal to annul the relationship in the first place.  They pronounce their decision written in Latin, no less.

In other words, you didn’t fail in your marriage, you failed in your choice of partner before the marriage– so voila, no marriage.

Only the Latin language could make that sound plausible as far as I’m concerned, but hey– I am single for a reason, so no need to petition or plead any tribunal regardless of language spoken.

In the Congressman’s case, however, his former wife petitioned Rome to reverse that decision in a very public way.   She wrote a book called, “Shattered Faith”,  expressing outrage that the Catholic Church had secretly (from her) granted this annulment which she had only found out about when the Congressman remarried in 1996.  She had not been advised that she could “petition” Rome to reverse their reversal by the Archdiocese of Boston.  (C’mon, give them a break, Sheila, all these reversals in Latin can be time consuming, I suspect.)

But, this sharp woman looked into the matter herself.  Her comments on the Kennedy influence with the Catholic Church were in the book, as well as her Episcopalian roots.  Leave aside the merits of the annulment, no one in Boston was handicapping this battle for the Episcopalian vs the Kennedys in Rome.

But, according to reports, she was informed in 2007 by Rome that her petition was successful so technically her marriage to the Congressman is now valid once again in the eyes of the church.

I was not one of them but you can be sure the fanatic Catholic fringe was watching closely  to see who was accepting communion at that Basillica on Saturday morning.  These are the same folks who suggested that Senator Kerry be denied communion in the 2004 election and basically want to make participation in the Church dependent upon espousal of all conservative beliefs.  They are cafeteria Catholics, alright, except their buffet line has few choices, but the good news is: it’s not crowded.  No long lines.  At least, for now.  But, that is changing amidst the hierarchy of the church as well as these leaden voices who call themselves faithful.

Like his politics or not, no one living in or near Boston this week or who listened to his son, Edward Kennedy II eulogize his father,  can help but recognize that the sum of Senator Kennedy’s life was greater than some of its sorry, sordid parts.

This man, called a booming roaring lion more times in the last few days than MGM’s standard bearer, was petitioning the wrong guy in my mind, for a boost into heaven.  His petition was most vividly and aptly answered by thousands of  human beings who do not speak Latin but instead lined the streets, told their stories, and waved goodbye.

The history books shall note their numbers, their images, their voices, but as we know–history books are not gospel, are they?

©Pat Coakley 2009


***A Reminder to those who prefer my flower and nature photos to my opinions, there is my new photoblog, Singular Sensation, complete with photo tips in each post.  Sixteen and counting as I write this.  Even I am impressed with how many rules I live by.

15 comments on “Talk to My Papal Hand, Just Not of History”

  1. Pat, you just kill me… Talk to the Papal hand…. rofl!!!! indeed!

    • Amber, I just had to look up “rofol”, dunce that I am. I’m glad someone is laughing and rolling, as it ain’t me on this one. Thanks, though.

  2. amazing. i’m speechless. what a fantastic piece of work.

    • Tipota, I know you have thought long hours on this man and his family… this piece is not an easy read, thanks for taking the time.

  3. ………………………….

    …..I too, am without words.

    …………………………they’re blanched pale after yours.

  4. Cardinal McCarrick used to be my big boss. He’s a funny and touching speaker whom I would love to have speak for me. I know what you mean about the Pope. I’m grateful that I’m not tied to getting his stamp of approval for my life. I think Sen. Kennedy’s funeral and all the attention it received shows that people can relate more to the flawed than the “infallible”.

    • Al, Cardinal McCarrick is indeed cut from a different bolt of cloth than Benedict. He was on some official tribunal of some sort looking into politicians and their voting records (vis a vis all the hot button Catholic issues) and he was criticized because he wasn’t doing enough finger pointing. Although, up there in age, I actually think he might have been pushed to retire. I love love your comment about how people relate more to the flawed than the “infallible”.

  5. When it comes to dying, I’ve been thinking lately that the function of agony is to help us let go and to prefer death to life.

    By the way, according to the Bardo of Death, don’t head towards the white light, it’s the blue one that ends the cycle of suffering.

    As for the pope, I don’t have that much trust or faith in guys who wear dresses and who reckon they’re not interested in having sex.

    It’s just not right I tell ya!

    • Yikes, Razz, that makes a little too much sense, doesn’t it? Now, I’ve got be on the look out for the “blue” light from now one?? This is getting confusing! As to your last point…it ain’t right and it shows. What can I say?

  6. It is hard for me to understand the desire to seek absolution from a man I do not know, rather than from my own guiding spirit. However, who is fit to judge the actions of any other at the end of life? Nevertheless, it is my hope, too, that the Senator’s legacy and the judgment history will be reflected more than anything in the feelings of the thousands who came out to stand in the rain and wish him farewell.

  7. If brought up Catholic, the Pope is not actually a man you don’t know, Don–in the social sense of course you don’t, but in other ways, he is a presence in your life. People go absolutely ballistic when he travels around…like a rock star…I went to a Papal Visit at Yankee Stadium or some large venue in NYC when I was in college and still participating in the liturgy. You would have thought I’d won the lottery. A long long time ago, another lifetime.

  8. it just flows in the read Pat. a pleasure.

  9. Another great piece of writing. I didn’t have time last week to comment on all your coverage of senator Kennedy’s death. I just wanted to let you know you did a great job. Your photos and writing are always very moving.

    I grew up in a very catholic family. If the funeral had happened 20 years ago my mother would have been the one checking who was taking communion. She is now divorced and doesn’t go to church anymore either.

    I never could get comfortable with the Catholic church. Once when I was in high school a priest took me and a friend to tour a seminary. The seminary was like a palace. They had a gold plated pipe organ. Only six future priests were actually living in the compound. During the tour we surprised two of the not yet ordained priests alone together in the vestments room. They were blushing. Incense was burning. The priest giving us the tour said to them while wagging his finger, “I know what you two were up to.” I think they were either smoking pot or making out. The following Sunday the priest at our church made a plea for more collection money.

  10. Pat, Im sorry if you thought me imprudent with my laughter. It just struck me funny with your turn of phrase “talk to the Papal hand”. I could visualize that clearly in my mind. And “Don’t let the coffin casket door hit you on the arse on the way out of this life” (adding a bit there for affect).

    Of course I share so many of your sentiments. I have many of my own feelings on this subject and when I was blogging shared them.

    I feel very bad that a man in his dying last days went to the leader of his church asking for absolution and forgiveness for his “sins” as was promised to him by the teachings of his church and was basically turned away. I hate the injustice of it. It broke my heart for the Kennedy family to have to sit there and listen while their loved one suffered that.

    When my mother was going through her almost dying last year, My Aunt (a very lapsed Catholic) insisted that my mother read some scroll that was given to her family by some Pope log ago that blessed her family. It assured the family a place in heaven no matter the sins. Now, my mother is a very firm opposer to the Catholic church in particular for her own reasons, but did it… not for herself … but to give my Aunt peace. I thought it so sad. Whatever! My mother pulled through as you know.

    I don’t know why I felt the need to share that with you. Just this whole thing makes me nuts when I think of it. And I could easily write a whole blog day after day on this type of stuff.

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