If I had 30 minutes with Sen. Kennedy

Posted Nov. 06, 2009, at 7:11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:41 a.m.

Edward Moore Kennedy was a United States senator for 46 years. At the time of his death, he was the third longest-serving senator in U.S. history. He was the brother of former President John F. Kennedy. His life was marked by great victory and terrible tragedy. He died Aug. 25, 2009, at the age of 77. He died of brain cancer, late on a Tuesday night, at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass.

In the days after his death, along with many Americans, I watched the televised services held in Kennedy’s honor. I listened to the tributes shared by family, friends and public officials. I learned some things about Sen. Kennedy that I had never known before. Some of what I learned made me wish I could have spoken with him personally before he died.

If I could have spent 30 minutes with Ted Kennedy in the weeks before his death, I would have thanked him for something that he once said, talked to him about a misconception that he may have held, and asked him about a cause with which he was aligned.

· At a funeral Mass in Boston on Aug. 29, Sen. Kennedy’s eldest son, Edward M. Kennedy Jr., said: “[My father] even taught me some of life’s harder lessons, such as how to like Republicans. He once told me, he said, ‘Teddy, Republicans love this country just as much as I do.’”

I would like to have thanked Sen. Kennedy for saying that. It seems that he really believed it, too, and lived it out, based on his longtime friendship with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Those words reflect a decent and noble mindset, in my opinion. They mark the sort of attitude that is vital if democracy, and even other relationships, are to work — here in United States and around the world.

· Late Saturday evening, in gathering dusk, the Kennedy funeral procession arrived graveside in Arlington National Cemetery. To my amazement, retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick began publicly reading the contents of a letter that Sen. Kennedy had written to Pope Benedict XVI. In the letter, Kennedy asked the pope to pray for him. He cited many of his lifelong ideals and achievements. And then he wrote: “I’ve always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness. And though I have fallen short through human failings, I’ve never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings of my faith.”

Given an opportunity, I would like to have tried to explain to Sen. Kennedy that, while it is fine to ask others to pray for us, there is only one who can ever ultimately, effectively, intercede for us with God, and that is not the pope. The Bible says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The Bible also says that on our own, apart from Christ, none of our virtues will ever move God to save us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Perhaps the senator understood those things. Perhaps I have inferred incorrectly from his letter to the pope. Even so, I would have been pleased to humbly try to communicate that which is central to Scripture: none of our own “goodness” will make any difference on Judgment Day. Nor will famed human references. It’s Jesus, only Jesus, in His grace, who can save us.

· Earlier on Aug. 29, Ted Kennedy Jr. also had related a moving account of the time when he was just 12 years old and trying to adjust to a new artificial leg. He had slipped and fallen on an ice-covered hill. He was crying and discouraged. Then, he says, “my father lifted me in his strong, gentle arms and said: ‘We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.’” Teddy Jr. said that on that day his father taught him that nothing is impossible.

There are many children who grow up in a home without a father, and yet do well in life. But how many children would deliberately choose to never have both a mother and a father? Given an opportunity, I would like to have asked Sen. Kennedy how he could reconcile his great gift of being a father to his own son with his endorsement of causes that effectively consign many other little ones every year to homes with parents of only one gender.

Who knows for certain how such a conversation would have ended? Based on what I have come to learn of Sen. Kennedy, it seems likely that we would have had a profitable 30 minutes. In any case, many others — including you — now have had an opportunity to consider these same matters.

The Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and pastor emeritus at the Monson Community Church. He may be reached on the Web at AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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