The news arrived at the Vatican mid-morning: Robert Kennedy, the US Senator and brother of the President who had been assassinated five years earlier, was in critical condition. The young politician had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel where, late into the night he and his supporters were awaiting news of his victory in the California primaries. Paul VI was meeting the pilgrims who had gathered in Saint Peter’s for the General Audience that Wednesday, 5 June 1968. “Faith demands action”, the Pope had just stated, and it gives man “the meaning of life and of its affairs, gives him hope in wise and honest activity, gives him strength to suffer and to love”.
It was at this point that Pope Montini, in English and then Italian, announced the attack on and the agony of the Senator whom he had met on 4 February 1967 and whom he described, his voice charged with emotion, as the “young man who was offering himself to the public service of his country”. Just hours later, at only 42 years of age, Bobby Kennedy died.
Thus, the fate of his brother John was repeated, again in circumstances which have never been fully clarified, as was that of Martin Luther King. Paul VI remembered the very date of the elder Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, 22 November 1963, with the words broadcast by ABC, the United States’ most widespread television network: A “mad and abominable act” which burdens “the conscience of humanity” and of the world, and which the Pope had linked to the tragic narrative of the Passion of Christ at the end of the homily for Palm Sunday, 7 April 1968, three days after the attack in Memphis that had snuffed out the life of the 39-year-old Protestant pastor who had fought for the civil rights of African Americans.
Three Christian figures whom Pope Montini associated explicitly on 9 June 1968, as he spoke before the Sunday Angelus. Paul VI said of them that “we would do well to remember” the voice of their witness raised “in favour of the poor, the destitute, the segregated, of the urgent need of progress, in a word, of social justice, to be obtained, not by violence and discord between citizens and brothers, but by the energetic and coherent affirmation of liberty, brotherhood and responsibility”.
On that terrible night in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Bobby Kennedy was being congratulated by hotel staff, Juan Romero, a 17-year-old Mexican busboy, placed a Rosary in the hand of the dying Senator. The need to honour his memory, now entrusted to the media, along with the words of Pope Montini, is felt now more than ever, half a century later.
St. Peter’s Square
June 21, 2018
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