Faith was integral to Bobby Kennedy's life and politics

  • Sen. Robert Kennedy shakes the hand of a Catholic nun as he is surrounded by elementary students in a visit to an anti-poverty program in Greenville, Miss., in April 1967. (AP Photo)
  • Larry Tye
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08122016p19pha.jpgThe following are excerpts from the Random House biography Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye. The book explores Kennedy's dramatic transformation from the Cold Warrior he was at the start of his career to the hot-blooded liberal he'd become by the end when, on the eve of his greatest political victory in the 1968 California Democratic presidential primary, he was felled by an assassin.

One arena in which Bobby Kennedy had always shown his softer side was his faith. All the Kennedys called themselves Catholic, but Bobby practiced his religion in ways that endeared him to his mother and distinguished him from his brother Jack. During his three years at Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island, he went to church the required four times a week plus the three optional services. Ritual played an even bigger part of life in his and Ethel's home than it had in Rose and Joe's. The young couple outfitted each of the 13 bedrooms with a Bible, holy water, and a crucifix or statute of St. Mary. There were prayers every morning, before and after each meal, and at bedtime when the children assembled to recite as one "Now I lay me down to sleep." Benediction was offered for the family, too, and as the list of deceased relatives grew, the children named each one and asked God to vault them straight to heaven. Also named were the saints they prayed to -- Anthony to end poverty and find a parking place, Francis for the growing menagerie, and Christopher when they took off in a plane. Bobby's St. Christopher medal never left his neck, which made sense given his nonstop traveling.

Most observers assumed Ethel was the keeper of the flame of faith, and that she was more wed to liturgy than Bobby. But the reassurance he found in his religion was apparent when, as a young man, he stepped over the railing and volunteered as an altar boy at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis, Mass., to the delight of his mother, who attended early Mass every morning. He did the same thing in random cities across America during his many investigations and campaigns. "The priests couldn't believe the delicacy with which he did it," recalls advance man James Tolan. "They told me they never saw an individual serve Mass in that way other than a seminarian."

His Catholicism was integral to his politics, too. It reinforced the sense of public service drilled into the children by Rose and Joe. It was consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of the family -- and to big ones like he was born into and that he and Ethel would more than replicate. Bobby shared the church's conscientious division of the world into good and evil, along with its judgment that communists are godless and the poor blessed. His life centered on three totems in those years of early adulthood: the Democratic Party, the Kennedy family, and God.

But he distinguished between the faith's divinity and its hierarchy. While he held the former sacrosanct, he had always challenged church authorities, from parish priests to the pope. Back in his undergraduate days, he joined other Harvard Catholics at lectures by Fr. Leonard Feeney, an influential Jesuit priest who warned that the Jews "are trying to take over this city" and preached that only Catholics could be saved. Bobby was embarrassed enough by those diatribes to discuss them with his brother Ted and his father, who arranged for him to meet with Archbishop Richard Cushing to convey his concern. Even a Kennedy found it difficult to confront a prelate in those days, and Bobby's courage likely played a role in Feeney's eventual expulsion from his order and excommunication from the church. In later years, Bobby lobbied the pope to name a liberal replacement for New York's archconservative Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman. And when he piled the children into the station wagon for the ride to church -- they had to attend starting as toddlers, although they stayed in the back with a nursemaid until they were "church broke" -- he "always carried a Bible with him," recalls Bobby Jr. "When the priest started talking about the right-wing stuff he would pointedly read the Bible or he would read the Catholic newspapers at the back of the church." He called it "an awful thing" that the church taught that babies, his or anyone's, were born in sin. He told his kids that "priests were Republicans and nuns Democrats." He also told them they needn't trust clerics to mediate the word of God when they could read it for themselves in the Old Testament and the New.

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All of Rose and Joe's kids grew up knowing that being Irish and Catholic brought their own kinds of prejudice. It was less overt than in grandfather Patrick Kennedy's day, when signs warned that "no Irish need apply" for jobs or housing, or in Joe's time, when neither his money nor his influence could fully erase lingering prejudice. "I was born here. My children were born here. What the hell do I have to do to be called an American?" Joe bristled when Boston papers persisted in calling him an Irishman. Bobby bristled, too, when the Spee Club at Harvard blackballed an Irish-American classmate and when Jack's Catholicism looked as if it might keep him from the presidency.

[Larry Tye runs a Boston-based training program for health reporters and is the author of seven books, including the one from which these excerpts are taken: Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, published in July by Random House.]

This story appeared in the Aug 12-25, 2016 print issue under the headline: Faith was integral to Bobby Kennedy's life and politics .
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