Years ago, the wife of a congressman told me that she had a holy card in her safe that she felt guilty about.
It was a card with a prayer on it, and she did not even remember which saint it invoked. The problem was that the holy card had been left by John F. Kennedy in a small hotel in her husband’s district when he had been running for president.
A woman who cleaned the room had found the card on the nightstand next to the bed and was so thrilled by the charisma of the candidate that she had kept it as a souvenir of a great man. Even when a person from the campaign called to ask if it had been found, she did not admit it.
When the president was assassinated, she felt guilty and wanted to give the card back to Jacqueline Kennedy. She arranged to give it to the congressman whose wife told me this story, but again the holy card got stuck in an appreciation of the memento. It was never returned to the slain president’s widow.
His practice of the faith is not what Kennedy is known for. But for me, the story gives a glimpse of the faith that was not always evident in the life of our first and only Catholic president. He must have said the prayer every night. Then he missed it as he continued his campaign to the point where he had his staff try to retrieve it.
Any sudden glimpse of the faith of a public person can be very satisfying to a believer because it indicates the penetration of the Spirit in a part of the world that seems resistant to God. That is why I have found great comfort reading a book now about the faith of a very public man.
The man’s son, a priest, tells that his father surprised him one day by saying, “I’ve been praying the rosary every morning on my way into the office.” It was unusual for the man to speak about his piety and the priest was stunned.
“That’s great, Dad,” to which his father responded, “Yeah? Do you think it does any damn good?”
“The theological truth that, no, with that attitude it probably doesn’t,” shot back the priest. They laughed and the moment was over, and “that brief glimpse of his devotion was gone.”
Who does not wonder sometimes why God apparently doesn’t listen to our prayers? Christ himself repeated the psalm, “Why have you abandoned me?”
The man in question was frustrated but continued praying. He expressed himself in ordinary speech about religious things, asking his son to “buy a Mass” for a friend. When the priest said such things were not bought, he answered, “I know that! But you know what I mean.”
Here was a man at the top of his field, a man well-acquainted with power and its intrigues, yet at the same time still a man of direct and even simple faith. He took things seriously that some more “sophisticated” people tended to ignore or neglected to study the meaning of.
For instance, this high-profile Catholic had a problem with funeral homilies that tended to canonize the deceased. After a service in which the priest affirmed that the man who died was in heaven, our very public man spoke privately to the family and said that “he would pray for the deceased miserable soul, as he hoped someone would pray for his when he was gone.”
The great man was especially concerned about how funerals sometimes emphasize personal recollections instead of our faith in eternal life. “Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the good news not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.”
So when he wrote to a minister who had conducted a service for a national leader, he thanked him for keeping the mystery of Christ the center of the worship.
He said his own Catholic Church supposedly did not permit “encomiums” at funeral Masses, and he worried that the praise of the deceased’s virtues in typical eulogies “can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”
His son remembered those words at his father’s funeral. The priest said the family had been comforted by all the admiration expressed for the great man when news of his death had been announced.
But, the priest-son said, “Let us not show him a false love and allow our admiration to deprive him of our prayers. We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him: that all stain of sin be washed away, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. That he rest in peace.”
The person I am writing about was someone who lived, fought, loved, and laughed in the public square. A brilliant rhetorician, he would have appreciated the clever way his son opened his homily at the funeral Mass:
“We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.”
The homily is part a little book published in April of this year from which I have been quoting frequently: “On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer” (Crown Forum, 2019, $15.77).
The principal author is deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but edited by his son Christopher, with some contributions from his friend and fellow Catholic Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his son Father Paul Scalia, and his daughter, Mary Clare Murray, as well as other friends.
The poet W. H. Auden said private faces in public places are kind and wiser than the contrary. This little book made me think how glimpses of private faith in public figures can move and instruct us in our individual experience. Catholics are a minority in these United States. Devout Catholics are a minority within a minority.
But devout Catholics who feel called to be a creative minority in a culture antithetic to spiritual values? Well, you get the idea. For that reason, leaders who are also solid believers with a sense of vocation to society need to be appreciated, celebrated, studied, and imitated — and “On Faith” is an excellent help in that regard.