The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated is still fresh in the memories of those of us who lived through it. We all remember where we were when we first heard the news that he’d been shot and how we waited for word that he would survive. We remember the sound of news anchor Walter Cronkite’s voice breaking as he delivered the news that the president was dead. But for millions of Catholics, it had a special meaning.
It was lunchtime, and I was in the girls’ bathroom putting on lipstick — a new privilege for a 16-year-old in Catholic school — when one of my classmates rushed in to say the president had been shot. Everyone froze. One girl screamed. And then Sister Jean Patrice’s voice came over the intercom asking all students to report to their homerooms immediately.
The halls filled with students pouring out of classrooms and the cafeteria, but even for Catholic school, the crowds were especially orderly. No one shouted, pushed or shoved. We whispered among ourselves as word spread. The president had been in Texas, I learned from one of the girls who worked in the school office. She had answered the phone when an anxious parent called, and she had been the one to tell our principal, who immediately turned on the small portable radio behind her desk.
When we were all settled in our homerooms, Sister Jean Patrice’s voice came over the intercom again. She explained that the president was shot as his motorcade made its way through the streets of Dallas and was taken to the hospital, where he was in surgery. And then, without comment, she began the rosary, which we recited together, our hands folded on our desks. We were praying for the president’s life and for his immortal soul.
He was our president, not just as Americans, but because we shared his faith. I imagined Jackie Kennedy, a rosary in her hands, intoning the same prayers we recited — and millions of other Catholics around the world flocking to churches, lighting candles, praying to the Blessed Virgin to intercede with her Son to spare the president’s life.
It is difficult today to imagine that being Catholic in the United States in 1963 still meant you were an outsider. Catholics were exotic. We worshipped differently — in a dead language, Latin — and many of us attended separate schools taught by women in strange outfits. We were thought to take our orders from Rome — a charge that plagued Kennedy in his presidential campaign, despite his reassurances to the contrary. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who also happens to be a Catholic,” he said, promising that he did “not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”
Had the president been shot because he was Catholic, I wondered silently as I prayed aloud. The idea seems preposterous in retrospect, but not then. The irony is that John F. Kennedy’s death may have played as important a role as his election in reducing anti-Catholic sentiment in America.
On Nov. 25, as the caisson on which the flag-draped casket bearing the president’s body stopped outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, millions of Americans who never would have considered stepping into a Catholic church were invited inside for the first time. The three networks broadcast the entire Requiem Mass, which was celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. Traffic stopped in every major city for five minutes. Church bells tolled, and virtually all Americans gathered around television sets throughout the country.
Who would not be moved by the singing of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria or Joseph Leybach’s Pie Jesu? What had seemed foreign became intimately personal. All Americans, no matter what their religion — or lack of one — shared in the deeply moving ritual of the requiem. At that moment, we were all Catholics.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once characterized anti-Catholicism as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” John F. Kennedy’s life and death helped destroy that bias and may be one of his most enduring legacies.
LINDA CHAVEZ’S column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.