Eternal Rest Be Yours, Pope St. Paul VI & President Kennedy.
November 22, 1963: Remembering the Assassination of President John Kennedy with A Message to the American People from Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI took the unprecedented step of inviting an American TV crew into the papal apartments so that he could express his sorrow and promise his prayers. The Pope recorded a message to be televised by the American Broadcasting Corporation. It was also broadcast over Italian Radio.
We are deeply shocked by the sad and tragic news of the (November 22nd) killing of the president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the serious wounding of Governor (John) Connally (of Texas), and we are profoundly saddened by so dastardly a crime, by the mourning which afflicts a great and civilized country in its head, by the suffering which strikes at Mrs. Kennedy, her children and the family.
With all our heart, We deplore this unhappy event. We express the heartfelt wish that the death of this great statesman may not damage the cause of the American people, but rather reinforce its moral and civil sentiments, and strengthen its feelings of nobility and concord; and we pray to God that the sacrifice of John Kennedy may be made to favor the cause he promoted and to help defend the freedom of peoples and peace in the world.
He was the first Catholic president of the United States; We recall our pleasure in receiving his visit and in having discerned in him great wisdom and high resolution for the good of humanity. Tomorrow, we shall offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that God may grant him eternal rest, that he may comfort and console all those who weep for him on his death, and in order that not hatred, but Christian love, should reign among all mankind.
– Pope Paul VI
From America Magazine, Sept. 21, 2015 (excerpt)
A Missing Memory
That June and July of 1963 turned out to be a most memorable trip for the president, more than he ever could have imagined; it would be one that he would talk about incessantly for the remainder of that summer, recalling the places he had seen and the people he had met, from Paris and General Charles DeGaulle, to his talks in London with Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, to meeting with Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of West Germany, to the raucous “homecoming” in Ireland with President Eamon De Valera and Taoiseach Sean Lemass.
Most particularly, John F. Kennedy would always have the bittersweet memory of that pope he did not get to see—John XXIII—and he would remember the history he had made when he solemnly shook hands with his successor, Paul VI. And in barely a little more than another half-year, JFK, too, would become a memory, like the late pope, who was revered in life as “Good Pope John.”
As for Paul VI, when that tragic November day came, he would allow the members of the press to enter the papal apartments to record him speaking—in English—of his sorrow at “so dastardly a crime” that befell the American people and the world. The pontiff would offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the Vatican for the repose of the soul of the president of the United States, with Italian President Segni in attendance. The president of Italy was bundled in a winter coat and wreathed in sorrow, for he was suffering from the flu, unable to go to Washington to attend the funeral of the American president he had happily met on that June day.
The visit that was much anticipated between pope and president in June 1963 would soon recede into history, given the onward march of subsequent events. But it was a handshake long in coming, given the historical and religious divide that long existed between this church and this state; and though in some ways it was symbolic, the handshake was also a concrete gesture before the world, in recognition that being an American and a Catholic weren’t mutually exclusive, but complementary to American history, life and culture. Anti-Catholicism has never died, but it did recede somewhat, in time; Catholicism subsequently—for the most part—became accepted as being a part of American life, which in truth, it had always been, even since the nation’s founding days.
Such was the story behind the bittersweet memory of one pope and the solemn handshake between the successor pope and the only Catholic who was president of the United States.
(America Magazine created a series of vignettes between popes and presidents of the United States in anticipation of Pope Francis’ historic journey. The preceding is a short piece from one of them.)