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Grieving, we find comfort and wisdom in awful grace of God


I first met young John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. at the White House in June 1963 when his father called a conference of some 200 jurists to focus on the emerging civil rights crisis. I talked with Caroline, then 6, and John Jr., who was almost 3. They were impatient because their father lingered with the lawyers far longer than they had been led to believe.

Neither of the children liked lawyers particularly that afternoon, although both of them would later become members of the bar themselves.

I have had the honor and pleasure of working with Sen. Ted Kennedy in Congress and intermingling with most of the Kennedy family.

Recently I was at a luncheon at Ethel Kennedy’s home where Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento of Luanda, Angola, announced that the library at the new Catholic University in Angola would be named for the late Michael Kennedy. He had helped that institution before his awful death in a skiing accident.

Ted Kennedy liked to bring his nephews to rallies on my behalf. He once expressed regret that there was no priest in the Kennedy family and hoped that his nephews would think about that.

At a public event on Saturday evening, July 17, when it was presumed that JFK Jr. and his two passengers were dead, I was asked to give an invocation. I urged that we all ask God to help us understand what he was trying to tell us by the death of JFK Jr. Later that evening an articulate Catholic woman asked me how she can be asked to understand something when she is totally convinced it is irrational, purposeless and cruel. I could only respond that, as the Bible repeats in dozens of places, God’s ways are incomprehensible, inscrutable and unfathomable.

Journalists repeat almost like a mantra that the Kennedys have faith. But the press does not go on to say that faith does not necessarily heal the wounded or console the bereaved. When an event occurs that has no correspondence with sanity or reality, the only answer is something basic: God does not let anything happen to us that is not for our real or permanent good.

So, did God choose the moment for JFK Jr.’s death because it was best for this child of destiny?

On a recent flight I sat across from a man who for two hours cared for his restless and upset son. The father thought only of the child and tried to make him peaceful and happy. God acts that way to each of us all the time. God is the hound of heaven. He loves each of us as if we were the only person in the world. His love is abundant and abiding. Even though there are 6 billion human images of God in the world, God is personally and perpetually involved in the life of each of them.

I have been in Ethel Kennedy’s home several times, and noticed the walls covered with photos of all the triumphs and tragedies of the family. The murder of Jack, the assassination of Bobby, the funeral for Jacqueline and on and on.

It is a grace of God to feel sorrow and sadness for JFK Jr. and for his family. I and all of us come closer to God by grieving and weeping for a man who, like his parents, might have changed the world.

Our sorrow has in mysterious ways contributed to our own sanctification. We pray for the families of JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, JFK Jr.’s wife. Their lives have become intertwined with ours. Our tears have sanctified all of us.

Two days after JFK Jr. disappeared, the lawyers who met with his father in 1963 on civil rights came together for their 36th annual symposium.

I closed my invocation with the line from Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy used when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart; and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999