O’Malley to preside over Kennedy Mass

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / August 29, 2009

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Senator Edward M. Kennedy today will be given a grand Catholic funeral at which Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will preside, the senator’s children and grandchildren will speak, and President Obama will offer a eulogy.

The funeral will liturgically be the same as that for other Catholics. But, with a guest list packed with the nation’s political elite, and music performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and tenor Placido Domingo, it will look and sound like no funeral this city has ever seen.

O’Malley yesterday put to rest days of speculation by announcing that he would preside at the Mass, despite his strong disagreement with Kennedy over abortion rights. But the more visible roles at the funeral will be played by the Rev. J. Donald Monan, the former president of Boston College, who will say the Mass, and the Rev. Mark Hession, the pastor of a Cape Cod parish where Kennedy worshiped, who will deliver the homily.

The religious leaders, though, will probably be overshadowed by others who will speak at the Mass, especially Obama, and Kennedy’s two sons, US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy Jr., who will deliver a tribute.

Multiple other Kennedy relatives will have roles in the funeral, including the senator’s daughter and stepchildren, as well as his grandchildren and his youngest grandnieces and grandnephews, a nod to Kennedy’s status as the youngest child in his own family.

The funeral will take place at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in Mission Hill, where Kennedy frequently prayed while his daughter was being treated for cancer.

The guests are expected to include not only Obama, but also former presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush, as well as much of the House and Senate leadership and the Cabinet. And the musicians will include not only Domingo and Ma, but also Susan Graham, a Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano who will sing “Ave Maria,’’ and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

The choice of Monan to be the principal celebrant of the Mass places an elder statesman of the church and the city at the helm of the funeral and means O’Malley will not have a major speaking role in which he would have to confront the issue of abortion; O’Malley’s most significant words will come in the form of a final commendation at the Mass. O’Malley, as well as basilica officials, are already facing intense criticism, including a heavy volume of telephone call protests, fueled by several very conservative antiabortion organizations. The critics do not believe Kennedy merits a Catholic funeral, are unhappy that Obama - like Kennedy, a supporter of abortion rights - is being allowed to speak at the Mass, and are also unhappy that O’Malley is agreeing to be present at such a funeral.

But O’Malley was also encouraged by many to appear at the Mass, and his aides said there was no question that Kennedy is entitled to a Catholic funeral. O’Malley is not the only Catholic prelate involved in the Kennedy services; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, will preside at the Arlington National Cemetery burial scheduled for this afternoon.

“It’s entirely appropriate for [O’Malley] to be there, and it would be a surprise if he were not,’’ said James M. O’Toole, a professor of history at Boston College.

“He will be there not in his role as someone who disagreed with the senator on particular public issues, but as the senator’s bishop, as his local spiritual leader.’’

Monan, a Jesuit priest, is a highly respected figure in Boston who served as president of Boston College from 1972 to 1996, longer than anyone before or since. He was a transformational leader for BC, shepherding the institution through a period of enormous growth in endowment and reputation, and he also was active in civic issues for many years.

Monan also has experience saying high-profile political funeral Masses; he previously said the funeral Masses for House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. in 1994 and US Senator Michael J. “Mike’’ Mansfield in 2001.

Monan declined to be interviewed yesterday, but the college issued a statement from him saying, “It is an honor for me’’ to say the Mass, and adding, “I have known Senator Kennedy for 35 years as a close friend, as a trustee of Boston College, and a person who certainly was one of the strongest advocates for the value of higher education.’’

Kennedy, although not a BC alumnus, was a longtime friend of the institution: He received an honorary law degree there in 1966, and he served as a university trustee from 1976 to 1991. Both of his brothers also received honorary degrees there.

Hession, the homilist, is the pastor of Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, a parish the Kennedys attend when in Hyannis Port, and Hession occasionally says private Masses for the family.

Michael Paulson can be reached at