John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Fifty Autumns Later (from A Pastoral Reflection by Bishop Edward K. Braxton published November 2013)
This year, Thanksgiving Day comes just days after the anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, fifty autumns ago. On that terrible day a half century ago, the world was shaken by a cruel and shocking act. The Chaplain of the Senate prayed, "Our Father, Thou knoweth that this sudden almost unbelievable news has stunned our minds and hearts. We gaze at the vacant place against the sky, as the President of the Republic goes down like a giant cedar, green with boughs."
When he was elected in 1960, many Americans were surprised that a Catholic could be elected in a country where there was a considerable anti-Catholic bias, including an unfounded fear that a Catholic president's judgments and policies might be somehow controlled by the Holy See. Catholics were generally proud that a member of the Church had been chosen to lead the country at a critical juncture.
When we examine the many difficult issues our country has faced this autumn and consider the extreme divisions that exist not only among our elected representatives in Washington but also among the citizens themselves, we may now wonder if a Catholic, with a well-formed conscience who is faithful to the teachings of the Church, could mount a successful campaign for the presidency. Religious beliefs have been all but banished from the public square into the realm of personal opinions and private convictions. As a result, discourse by elected officials and the media about fundamental issues concerning the dignity of every human life and the intrinsic meaning of marriage and family life are never spoken of as "moral issues," even though that is what they are. Instead, they are almost exclusively termed "social issues." This makes it possible to sidestep the question of objective truth and ways of evaluating human activities that are based on more than statistics and opinion polls. In the secular age, it is argued that there are no objective moral norms, only subjective points of view. When you consider the complex process of garnering votes in certain parts of key states in order to win a majority of votes from the Electoral College, the question must be asked: Could a Catholic accomplish this in the age of pluralism and remain faithful to his faith? As we appreciate the potential, the achievements, and the limitations of President Kennedy's brief tenure, in retrospect it may seem unlikely that we will soon see an autumn with another Catholic in the White House.
President Kennedy's admirers and critics generally acknowledge that one of his gifts was the ability to put words right. Five decades after that awful autumn day in Dallas, it is instructive to recall his eloquent words, or to consider them for the first time.
On November 5, 1963, the president issued a proclamation designating November 28 as Thanksgiving Day, never dreaming that he would not live to see that day. In his proclamation, he wrote:
Yet, as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers -- for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.
[L]et us earnestly and humbly pray that [God] will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist. Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings -- let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals -- and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.
Three years earlier in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961 he declared:
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world... And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
It is striking that these words uttered so long ago still resonate today. Indeed, they could be uttered by an elected official today almost word for word, even though the world of the early 1960s was profoundly different from our world today. Perhaps one important difference is the confident optimism, even the hope, in the slain president's tone. Today's political leaders and the American people themselves might be somewhat less optimistic about the future.
Fifty years later, we need the gift of hope!