Losing Kennedy

Well, we have yet more information about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, 54 years ago, in Dallas, Texas, and people who remember the event still cannot agree about why he was shot or by whom.

He was the fourth U.S. president to be murdered while in office. The others were Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, James A. Garfield, in 1881, and William McKinley, in 1901. In each of these cases, some convoluted political idea impelled the assassin.

The Lincoln murder and the Kennedy assassination had specifically Catholic connections. Many people insisted that the Catholic Church, maybe even the pope, was behind the shooting of Lincoln. Anti-Catholicism was that strong in America.

Catholic connections in the Kennedy story are less ugly, quite heartwarming in fact.

Every news outlet in the world focused on Dallas when John Kennedy was shot. Everyone knew that he had been rushed to the emergency room at Parkland Memorial Hospital, but for a while no one, outside the inner circle, knew if the president was dead or alive.

Then, caught on camera, a Catholic priest emerged from the hospital, Father Oscar Huber, a Vincentian priest serving at Holy Trinity Church, near Parkland Memorial. He had been called to come to Kennedy, and he had anointed the unconscious president.

Father Huber was first to break the news that the president had died. Word was flashed across the world, confirmed not long afterward by an official White House announcement. (Father Huber himself died in 1975.)

Under the Constitution, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency. Knowing the chaos created by the assassination, and wondering if a conspiracy was underway, the new president decided to take the constitutional oath at once.

Security personnel advised Johnson that the safest place for him was aboard Air Force One, the presidential jetliner, so the oath was set as soon as possible aboard the plane.

The Constitution contains the language of the oath. It does not require, however, that a Bible be used, but every president since George Washington, except one, has sworn the oath with his hand on a Bible.

Where, therefore, could aides find a Bible? They had summoned Judge Sarah Hughes, a federal district judge in Dallas, once a Johnson political ally, to hurry to the airport to administer the oath, but no one told her to bring a Bible. Almost frantic, presidential assistants searched Air Force One for a Bible. Somebody found a black, leather-bound book with gold edges, and without checking, assumed that it was a Bible. The book was thrust into Johnson’s hand, and before Judge Hughes, he took the presidential oath.

Then it was discovered that the new president was not holding a bible but President Kennedy’s daily missal. The missal was on the plane because, wherever he was, President Kennedy usually attended Sunday Mass. Back then, everything was in Latin. Few Catholics understood what was being said at Mass, so many brought missals with them to church since the missals contained English translations.

Probably every Catholic Church in the United States, and many abroad, scheduled Requiem Masses for the slain president, extensively reported in the news media.

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At the funeral itself, Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston, celebrated Mass in Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, in the presence of the world’s great and mighty. French President Charles de Gaulle, Belgium’s king and other leaders knelt and received Communion.

Television took the funeral around the world. Millions upon millions of people saw a Catholic Mass for the first time.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.