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The chastening of nation and of Church

· Hope not in some mythical Camelot but in the new Jerusalem ·

Present-day Americans who were alive on 22 November 1963, the day when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, can tell you precisely where they were when they heard the devastating news. They can still summon up the feelings of shock, of bewilderment, and of fear which they experienced. Though we knew, of course, that other presidents had been assassinated — Lincoln in 1865, McKinley in 1901 — that was only history. This was heart-breaking reality: our reality, our hearts.

The dashing young President, and his glamorous, refined wife, seemed to represent the face of a new generation of Americans. The President had spoken of a “new frontier”, one that included the exploration of space, but also the betterment of conditions on earth. He famously urged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Many young people responded by joining new initiatives that Kennedy launched, like the Peace Corps.

The first vote I cast in a presidential election was in 1960, and like so many of my peers, I voted for Kennedy. As the first Catholic to be elected President, he symbolized that Catholics had at last achieved full citizenship in the political life of the Republic. The early 1960s also marked the apogee of the institutional dimension of Catholic life in the United States. New churches and schools were being constructed to meet the needs of an expanding and upwardly mobile Catholic population; vocations to the priesthood and religious life flourished. The iconic portrait that depicted Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy side by side seemed to promise a new era in both Church and nation: a new Pentecost, both ecclesial and civil.

John Kennedy has been called “the first television president”. Many maintain that he won the election because his handsome, wholesome demeanor during the first televised debate in American history contrasted with the shadowy, unprepossessing appearance of his opponent, Richard Nixon. Tragically, his funeral itself became the first television spectacle that bound the world into a global village, with millions assembled around their electronic campfires.

On 22 November 1963 I was studying theology in Rome, living at Collegio Capranica. After supper, many of us, made our way as usual to the tiny television set to watch the nightly news. It was then that we first heard the barely believable report of the shooting in Dallas. Unbelief turned to horror when it was announced, shortly later, that the President had died. To be five thousand miles from home, with no possibility of direct communication with loved ones with whom to share dismay and grief, made the burden all the heavier. The following days, culminating in the State Funeral and the Requiem Mass, passed as if in a dream. The Dies Irae of that Mass had never before resounded with such power and dread. One went numbly about one’s daily tasks, prayer, work, study, but with a sense that one’s life would be forever marked by the events of that black day.

Yet life, of course, continued. In Rome the Vatican Council’s second session ended two weeks later and was followed by two more sessions, before its conclusion in 1965. In the United States the historic Civil Rights Act finally passed in Congress, impelled by the emotion generated by Kennedy’s assassination, as well as the shrewd legislative skill of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. However, the hopes raised by conciliar decrees and congressional legislation were severely tested by the events of another tragic year: 1968. In the United States assassination claimed the lives of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, riots ensued in some cities, and turmoil engulfed many universities. In the Church the issuance of the Encyclical, Humanae Vitae , disappointed the expectations of many Catholics. Priests and religious, in growing numbers, renounced their commitments, leaving once full rectories and convents relatively empty. A time of intense polarization had begun.

The Kennedy-era’s “Camelot” was short-lived. Moreover, it was revealed, in the aftermath, to be as much myth as reality, marred too often by secret infidelities. Once again it became abundantly clear that true and lasting reform must ever contend with the waywardness of the human heart. Without authentic conversion the wellbeing and integrity of both nation and Church is compromised and corroded.

Fifty years after that bleak November day, the end of the liturgical year once more is upon us. This year the Feast of Christ the King also marks the conclusion of the Year of Faith proclaimed by Benedict XVI. But, in the deepest sense, every year is a year of faith. Indeed, every day demands of believers a new beginning, a new centering on Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a renewed conversion to Christ as “alone the Holy One, alone the Lord,” as we sing in the Gloria.

The hopes of believers are set not on some mythical Camelot, but on the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2). They seek to enter fully into the City of God “not as strangers and sojourners, but as fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19-20). And to this end they exclaim, in the power of the Holy Spirit, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20) — come for the life of the Church and the world.

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