Some questions, answers on topic of faith

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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Senator Edward M. Kennedy was the most prominent surviving member of the most famous Catholic family in American history, and his death and funeral have prompted questions from Catholics and non-Catholics about how the church’s rituals and beliefs apply to the late senator.

The senator’s relationship to the church was complicated - he was a regular churchgoer whose positions on issues of social policy closely resembled those of the church, but his support for abortion rights put him at odds with the church’s teaching and his personal conduct drew criticism from many. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about Kennedy’s death and Catholicism:

Q. Why was the funeral at the Mission Church?

A. Senator Kennedy, before he died, chose the Mission Church, formally known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as the site for his funeral. The church has an icon that Catholics pray before when seeking healing, and the senator had frequently prayed there when his daughter, Kara, was being treated for lung cancer at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. He also visited the church when he was diagnosed with cancer last year. The church also is large, so it had space for the funeral, and it is located in a diverse and long-struggling neighborhood, calling attention to the senator’s concern for the poor.

Q. How was this Mass similar to, or different from, ordinary funeral Masses?

A. The liturgy was the same, in terms of the prayers and rituals, but there were fewer hymns, more speeches, and, obviously, more famous people in the pews.

Q. Wouldn’t Chappaquiddick, or Senator Kennedy’s divorce and remarriage, or his support for abortion rights, disqualify him from a Catholic funeral?

A. The Catholic Church teaches that all of us are sinners and that sinfulness does not disqualify one from a funeral Mass. “It’s not a canonization - if you’re a member of the flock, you have a right to a Catholic funeral,’’ said the Rev. James A. Field, a former director of the archdiocesan Office for Worship. “He was a faithful, baptized member of the church who hadn’t left or been thrown out, and he had a right to a funeral Mass.’’

Q. What was Cardinal O’Malley’s role at the funeral?

A. O’Malley was present to represent the Catholic Church of Boston, and because he is the archbishop of Boston, he was considered the presider. He was not the principal celebrant of the Mass (that was the Rev. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College), and he was not the homilist (that was Rev. Mark R. Hession, the family priest on Cape Cod). But that was not unusual; bishops often allow other priests to lead weddings or funerals, even when the bishop is present, if there are priests who had closer relationships with the person being married or buried. O’Malley’s most visible role was to offer the prayers of commendation, after the Mass, when he commended Senator Kennedy into the hands of God, and asked God’s blessing on the mourners. During that ritual, O’Malley also honored the body with incense in a sign of God’s blessing.

Q. Doesn’t the church prohibit so many speakers at a funeral?

A. Yes. The Archdiocese of Boston guidelines are quite clear, reading, “only one speaker, a member or a friend of the family, may speak for not more than five minutes in remembrance of the deceased.’’ Other speeches are supposed to take place during a wake. This policy has often been unpopular, and it’s not clear how evenly enforced it is, but Cardinal Bernard F. Law famously insisted on the one-speaker restriction at the funerals of House Speaker Tip O’Neill and US Representative John J. Moakley. There were three speakers at yesterday’s funeral - the two Kennedy sons and President Obama. The archdiocese says an exception was made by Father Monan, the celebrant, and the Redemptorist fathers, who oversee the basilica.

Q. Why was there so little singing?

A. The congregation sang twice, at the beginning (“Holy God We Praise Thy Name’’) and the end (“America the Beautiful). That was significantly less singing than at most contemporary Catholic funerals, where the responsorial psalm, the Allelulia, and the acclamations would be sung. The Kennedy funeral, however, had more choral and instrumental music, led by some famous musicians, including the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the tenor Placido Domingo, the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Q. Who was allowed to take Communion?

A. Communion in Catholic churches is restricted to Catholics in good standing, but no announcement was made, there was no reference to a restriction in the program, and anybody who came forward would receive Communion. Camera angles were restricted so that they did not show exactly who took Communion, but the prominent non-Catholic elected officials, such as President Obama, remained in their pews during Communion.

Q. Is Senator Kennedy going to heaven?

A. Catholic theologians say that is a question for God, not church officials or any of Senator Kennedy’s fans or foes. An archdiocesan official says, “The purpose of the funeral liturgy is to pray for the soul of the deceased person. Our prayer is inspired by our hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness. Senator Kennedy, like any person, was imperfect and in need of God’s mercy.’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at Read his blog, Articles of Faith, at