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08.26.09

Teddy's Catholic Pain

Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer on the private depth of the family patriarch’s Catholic faith, including his regular attendance of noontime Mass and how as a divorcee, it pained him to be refused Communion.

Ted Kennedy, whose health was in steadily deteriorating since he last appeared in Washington in May, declined sharply in the last few days, but it was a well-kept secret. A senior Kennedy aide from the Senate stopped me on a street corner Tuesday morning to ask what I knew, and we confessed our mutual ignorance. At the end, a Hyannis Port priest, Rev. Patrick Tarrant, described a last night full of prayer, from Kennedy and his family.

“The truth is,” the priest said, “he expressed to his family that he did want to go. He did want to go to heaven. He was ready to go.”

“The truth is,” the priest told the Boston TV station WCVB, “he expressed to his family that he did want to go. He did want to go to heaven. He was ready to go. There was a certain amount of peace, actually—in the family get-together last night. I couldn’t help but think that the world doesn’t know that part of Kennedy at all.”

While funeral arrangements were not announced in great detail, longtime Kennedy aides went quickly to work and announced that the senator’s body would lie in repose, not at the Capitol where he labored for more than 46 years, but at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point in Boston, on Thursday and Friday. In lieu of flowers, mourners were urged to contribute to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, the living memorial to be built close by. A memorial service will be held Friday evening at the library before Saturday morning’s funeral at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Saturday afternoon’s burial at Arlington next to his martyred brothers.

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The depth of Kennedy’s Catholic faith, something he never wore on his sleeve, was emphasized Wednesday. Father Tarrant called him “a man of quiet prayer.”

Then the senator’s office announced the church where his funeral will be held Saturday. The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is not the biggest church in Boston, but it has two pieces of history. First, as a silver plaque on a pyramid of crutches attest, in 1883 prayer cured Grace Hanley of a shattered spine. The church became known as the “Lourdes in the Land of the Puritans.”

Second, and probably much more to the point, Kennedy went to pray at the church when his daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen, was operated on for lung cancer in 2003, a cancer that a Baltimore physician had declared inoperable. Ms. Allen is fine with no evidence of recurrence.

The depth of Kennedy’s faith has rarely been a public matter, except when the church attacked his permissive view of abortion. But a few years ago he told another divorced Catholic how much it pained him to be refused Communion, although some priests did not object. Kennedy’s 1982 divorce from Joan Bennett Kennedy made him ineligible for Mass. The annulment he eventually won only became obvious when he took Communion from Bernard Cardinal Law at the 1995 Mass for his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

After the annulment and his remarriage, he would often slip away from the Senate to attend a nearby noontime Mass with his second wife, Vicki Reggie Kennedy.

Father Tarrant described Kennedy’s faith as more than ritual. He told WCVB that Kennedy’s faith “was his secret. It was like it was the secret of his power, to be involved in doing good for others and it was what, I believe, drove him.”

I interviewed Kennedy many times for a biography, but we rarely talked about his faith. But early on, I asked him what led a man in his comfortable circumstances to be so interested in the poor and the sick and people down on their luck. He spoke of his grandfather’s instruction and his father’s commendation of public service and then added in the syntax that sometimes failed him, “You know I was thinking, stronger were my mother’s basic religious beliefs, Sermon on the Mount, those obligations that we all had.” And there was that verse from Luke: “of everyone to whom much has been given, much has been expected.”

The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and Videos Meanwhile, on the issue of getting a prompt replacement for Kennedy in the Senate, there has been some movement. Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said he would sign legislation that gave him a temporary appointment before a special election. That election, five months off, is the only element in current law, and Kennedy last week released a letter to Patrick and legislative leaders urging a change to provide for an interim appointment who could provide a 60th, filibuster-killing vote in health care.

There was no clear signal of what the Massachusetts legislature might do, though members professed to be embarrassed at seeming hypocritical by changing the law so quickly after they acted in 2004 to thwart a Republican governor from appointing a replacement for presumptive President John F. Kerry. Efforts to determine when the Massachusetts legislature last felt embarrassed were unavailing.

Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.