It made me feel old. Amid all the attention given to President John Kennedy’s assassination as the 50th anniversary of that event occurred, people asked me what it was like on Nov. 22, 1963. I felt as if they thought I was aboard the ark as it moved across flood-swollen waters watching Noah handle the rudder.
I vividly recall the confusion, almost panic, that so tightly gripped the entire country when Kennedy was killed. Sensing this feeling, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson rightly thought that he should reassure the country by being sworn into the presidency as quickly as possible. It was decided that immediately, in the most secure place, the presidential plane itself, the new president should take the constitutional oath. Aides hurried to find a Bible on the plane for the new president to use as he took this oath. Scrambling in Kennedy’s cabin, somebody found a small black book that surely looked like a Bible. Eureka! The book was rushed to Johnson, who took it in his hand.
Actually, it was not a Bible. It was John Kennedy’s missal, Latin with the English translation. The missal was aboard the plane because, wherever he might be in the world, Kennedy insisted upon attending Sunday Mass.
Today, many Catholics look with questions at Kennedy. He was never at odds with the Church on any basic moral consideration in politics, but revelations of unedifying personal behavior have come. In his day, by contrast, Catholics saw him totally as one of their own. One reason was his compliance with what then was that absolute requisite for Catholics, attending Mass each and every Sunday.
It is very interesting how Catholic attitudes about Sunday Mass have changed. Numbers vary from place to place and circumstance to circumstance, but no one can argue that attending Sunday Mass is not as important for Catholics as it was 50 years ago.
Largely responsible for this shift is the changing view among Catholics about the Church. Catholics often now brag that no church is necessary for salvation, just personal inclination. Looking back to Kennedy, one social analyst opined that no one today would challenge a candidate for public office simply because he or she might be a Catholic. Assuming this analysis is correct, it may be because fewer people, Catholic or other, take religion seriously if religion means complying with the formal teachings of an established, organized church.
Social data says that statistically the Catholic religion is on the decline. Some people find this development unsettling, even frightening. They view abandoned churches in large cities with dismay, even if they had no personal association with these churches. (Before despairing altogether, it should be noted that religion definitely is not declining in places such as Dallas, where they cannot build new churches — Catholic or Protestant — fast enough.)
Also before despairing, read history. Catholicism has been on the decline before. In France, the Reformation took a heavy toll, and then came the ferocious French Revolution. Talk about losses. Each time, French Catholicity rebounded — magnificently. Things are declining again in Catholic France. Pray that another rebirth will come.
Looking back at 1963, the Kennedy assassination aside, and comparing religion then with the present can be a sobering experience. What lies ahead?
Religion again will be strong in this country when we Catholics live and speak as if our beliefs mean something to us, that they refresh and reward us, and that in them we find every answer to every question — and, when we understand what the Church is.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.