Cardinal Cushing: John F. Kennedy Had a Constant Interest in the Higher Things of Life
January 19, 2014 • 9:44AM

On the eve of a memorial concert for John F. Kennedy in Boston on Jan. 19 sponsored by the Schiller Institute, we publish the following selections from an oral history on John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII that Richard Cardinal Cushing gave to Edward M. Kennedy in 1966.

RICHARD CARDINAL CUSHING:

...The first impression the future President made on me was his conviction that one's education was never finished. That accounts for his constant interest in the higher things of life. .... [F]rom his deep familiarity with history, John Kennedy knew his country and its past better than most presidents. From his own experience in war, he knew the meaning of the phrase, "live for country." From his own life in this century, he knew the nature of the dangers that faced his country. He deftly blended these areas of knowledge together to forge a guide for his actions. He loved America and its people. Seeing it as he did in the prime of its prosperity and power, he determined that he must do all that he could to preserve this image for its children and his. He had to reduce the threat of nuclear holocaust without resort to all-out war. This was his crisis as the first government under the Constitution had been Washington's [George Washington]; the Civil War, Lincoln's [Abraham Lincoln]; depression, Roosevelt's [Franklin D. Roosevelt]. He knew from history that these men had met their problems with new ideas that drew criticism from friend and foe alike. He knew that contemporary popularity often evaded the innovator....

... [P]ermit me to say here there were two great men of the twentieth century who live forever in the hearts of those who endeavored to lives by the two greatest commandments of the Almighty, love of god, and love of neighbor. Both were named John. John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII.

Pope John XXIII was the first Pope in four hundred years who built, as it were, bridges of charity and mutual respect between Catholics and Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox, and Catholics and Jewish and pagan people. When he was elected Pope as a successor to the scholarly, saintly Pope Pius XII, it was said by many that his election brought forth a "caretaker" of the Catholic Church for a few years and then a younger man would succeed him. On the contrary, he proved to be one of the most popular popes in all history, and the bridges he built between people of all religions were bridges of love, bridges of confidence and charity, tolerance, understanding, and kindness. As a result, the whole climate pertaining to the relationship between Catholics and non-Catholics has changed. No one in his wildest dreams would think that ten years ago we would be having dialogues with Protestant ministers, with Jewish rabbis, with peoples of all faiths. Dialogues are friendly conversations. They are not debates where one side wins and another side loses. Who would think that ten years ago, for example, that we would be having Bible vigils, services consisting of Bible readings and hymns and prayers acceptable to all Christians? Well, Pope John XXIII initiated all of this by his wonderful Christ-like spirit of charity.

I always felt that John F. Kennedy was a forerunner in this field of Pope John XXIII because he never allowed his faith to interfere in any way with his relations with others. He was the greatest representative of brotherhood, I think, that we had among the laity. The attitude that he took towards his religion and its relationship with all of the constituents that would be under him as president of the United States were the very attitudes that a man of the type of Pope John XXIII assumed when he became the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that there were those who opposed Jack Kennedy as president on the basis of his religion, but I think they did so not out of any malcontent or any bigotry or bitterness. There surely was some prejudice against a Catholic president in the White House, but I think that those who opposed his election did so on account of ignorance and for that they are to be excused. But when he talked to the group of some five hundred ministers in Texas and subjected himself to all the questions they wanted to present to him relative to his religion, he respected and esteemed conscientious religious beliefs of all peoples. And at the same time he gave the entire country the assurance that as president of the United States, his first and most solemn duty was to fulfill the Constitution of the United States in its spirit and in its letter and under no conditions would he be influenced in any way by the Catholic Church or the Vatican in the fulfillment of his official duties. And as far as I know, while he was President no influence of that kind was ever brought to bear upon him.

Hence, I repeat, John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII were the great pioneers of what we now call the ecumenical spirit which is intended to wipe away all form of bigotry by knowing, respecting, and esteeming the religious beliefs of all peoples. From this same ecumenical spirit we pray, study, and carry on conversations, especially among Christians, with them hope of creating a better atmosphere within which all Christians will one day be united in one fold under one Shepherd.

... Pope John had great esteem for him. I was with the President at the Boston College stadium where twenty thousand people were commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of that institution. He was the chief speaker. He held in his hand a copy of Pacem in Terris, the famous encyclical letter of Pope John XXIII on the social order. This encyclical, written in simple understandable language, was received with much acclaim, so much so that even the Communists tried to make propaganda out of it, saying, "This is just what we are preaching to you people." On the other hand, this is what the program of President Kennedy was aiming at. He realized that the objectives of the American Revolution were never fully attained. Hence he was spearheading the fight for human rights, Medicare, aid to education, the elimination of poverty and unemployment, and other legislation pertaining to a better social order so that every man, woman and child in the United States would share in the tremendous wealth and strength of their country. When President Kennedy arose to speak to the twenty thousand people at the Boston College stadium, he held a copy of Pacem in Terris in his hand and, having summarized its contents, he said, "Because of this encyclical, I proudly proclaim before the world that I am a Roman Catholic."

Pope John XXIII was close to death at that time. From the Vatican they checked with me to confirm the statement of the President. I replied, "I was there. I know it was true. I sat alongside of him when he made the statement." Pope John was so pleased that he hoped against hope that he would live to meet President Kennedy. But it was too late. He was dead when President Kennedy came to Rome after the tremendous reception he received in West Germany. Meanwhile, however, he gathered many personal gifts which he planned to give the President in addition to the official gifts that it is customary for a Pope to give to the Head of a State. Among these gifts were medals and other tokens of recognition received by the Holy Father. But the most precious of them all was one of three autographed copies of Pacem in Terris....

I have seen so many indications of the fact that he was what I call a forerunner of John XXIII. John XXIII could have done a great deal for John F. Kennedy because John XXIII was unique. I think he ought to be canonized because I, even now, pray to him as a saint. One reason I think he was a saint is he was about the only one who was ever in a high position who ever understood me and I don't understand myself.