Not very many people these days remember the recently deceased Archbishop Emeritus Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans for the distinction that put him in the history books, after literally putting him on millions of television screens across the world.
He preached the homily in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., at the Pontifical Requiem Mass for President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
The funeral was scheduled to see the presence of the most distinguished Catholic American prelates of that time. Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing was to celebrate the Mass.
Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision about the preacher, and nothing else would do. She wanted Washington’s Auxiliary Bishop Hannan, her friend and the late president’s friend. (Only recently did the extent of their friendship become public. Archbishop Hannan mentioned it in his 2010 book, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots” (OSV, $24.95)).
A student in school then, my eyes were fixed that day on one of those millions of television sets. I once told Archbishop Hannan that I only remembered the beginning of his homily at the funeral, “Mr. President and Mrs. Johnson; Your Majesties; distinguished heads of state; distinguished heads of government; Mr. Speaker and Mrs. McCormack … ,” as on and on he went. I told him that I suspected organizing such a list was a chore. He said that it was a chore, and he thought that he had accomplished it well, and then he laughed. He said that he saw former Presidents Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower, and he realized that he had missed them!
His chief purpose, he said, was to use this extraordinary opportunity to say something about the Catholic view of life and death. While deferential, the presence of the great did not faze him. He wanted people to know Catholic doctrine, because it provides the way to salvation. He served that purpose in the homily but also in everything he did and said. It was not hard, since Catholicism was an absolute, basic, fundamental part of him. Speaking about the things of God came naturally.
He stood his ground, but was extraordinarily street-wise, and also patient and forgiving. He knew human nature. Yet, this said, he never truly understood how Catholics would not follow the faith.
A chaplain in the Second World War, he was with his unit when it liberated a German prison camp, not for allied soldiers but for Germans opposed to Adolf Hitler. In the camp, doctors experimented on prisoners, specializing in pregnant women. Descriptions of their barbarous procedures nauseated the Americans.
Father Hannan, horrified at the sight, further was shocked that the German officer in charge called himself a Catholic. Finding this officer, he demanded, “As a Catholic, how could you have allowed this?” The man made excuses. Father Hannan came back, “As a Catholic … ” The officer said that he merely obeyed orders. “But, as a Catholic … ,” Chaplain Hannan insisted once more.
Quick and simple, being a Catholic simply meant being a Catholic, and, quick and simple, that meant living the faith, come whatever. Nothing excused anything else.
Always unfailingly gentlemanly and courteous, sensitive and considerate, straightforward and perceptive, he was never anything but what he was.
He was, unfailingly, a disciple of Christ, a priest and bishop whose life was for the Church. Everyone knew he was what he wanted to be, and did they respond!
May his great priestly, Christian, blunt, understanding, and fearless soul rest in peace. Amen.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.