September 4, 2009


The Kennedy family

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died only 14 days apart. Their deaths leave their sister, Jean Smith, as the only surviving member of their generation of the most prominent Catholic political family in America. It included President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been attorney general during his brother’s administration. Both were assassinated.

Joseph Kennedy was hugely ambitious for his children. But then tragedies struck. Joseph Jr. died during World War II when a plane he was piloting, laden with 22,000 pounds of explosives, exploded over the English Channel.

Kathleen, the fourth child, died in a plane crash in France. Patricia, once married to actor Peter Lawford, preceded Eunice and Ted in death.

Eunice was the fifth and Ted the last of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Although Eunice was 11 years older than Ted, they had many things in common, but also some great disagreements.

They were both committed to helping the less fortunate in society, but Eunice was pro-life in every way while Ted was one of too many Catholic politicians who have ignored the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

Eunice’s commitment to serving the less fortunate took the form of founding the Special Olympics for children with developmental disabilities. Her passion for helping them came from her experiences with her older sister, Rosemary, who was developmentally disabled. Special Olympics competitions have grown internationally to involve up to 3 million people of all ages.

Eunice obviously had great organizational abilities as well and was able to raise funds for her foundation. President Kennedy once said that she was the smartest one in the family and would have made a great president.

She was also a devout Catholic. Like her mother, she attended Mass daily. She considered her heroes to be the Blessed Virgin, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day as well as her own sister, Rosemary, and her mother.

This writer talked with Eunice and her husband, Sargent Shriver, in 1976 after they attended a session of the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, where they listened in the audience to a talk by Mother Teresa. It was four years after Sargent, who had been the first leader of the Peace Corps, ran for vice president. As we walked back to their hotel, they talked about their admiration for Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, Sargent Shriver has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease since 2003.

Ted became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts in 1962 to fill his brother John’s unexpired term after he was elected president. Ted became the patriarch of the Kennedy family after Bobby’s death in 1968. Perhaps Ted might have been elected president had it not been for the 1969 accident in which he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, resulting in the drowning death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Instead, he went on to be one of the most powerful senators in American history, renowned for his ability to work with those with whom he disagreed politically. As Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said, “For nearly half a century, Sen. Kennedy was often a champion for the poor, the less fortunate and those seeking a better life.”

He championed health care reform, immigration reform, the rights of those with disabilities, and many other liberal causes. Unfortunately, though, he seemed to have a blind spot when it came to protection for the unborn. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said that Ted “did struggle with this aspect of his Catholic faith.” If so, it didn’t show.

Protestant evangelical leader Jim Wallis said that Ted was “conflicted” on abortion and “felt trapped” by the liberal side. But he was the leader of the liberal side. Imagine how much good could have been accomplished if he had remained anti-abortion as he was early in his career. He could have brought many other liberals along with him.

Ted’s death has been called the end of a political dynasty. However, many members of the next generation of Kennedys have taken their places in public service.

Lord, grant eternal rest to Eunice, Ted and the other deceased members of this remarkable family.

—John F. Fink

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