Ted Kennedy to Pope: "I have tried to right my path"

Leave it to Ted Kennedy to depart this planet with one final bombshell -- a shocker, delivered at graveside, that's already being dissected by pundits, would-be biographers, Catholics . . . oh, and probably the fact-checkers at Time magazine. In the final act of a closely-choreographed farewell -- much of it reportedly planned by Kennedy himself -- Ted Kennedy's voice came alive from beyond the grave as read by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, DC. The text? An exhange of letters between Kennedy and the Pope, which served as a powerfully emotional coda to a wrenching weekend. 

The gesture also carried a media subtext that may have been lost on a general audience. Last week Time published an article quoting an unnamed Vatican official saying that "Here in Rome, Ted Kennedy is nobody," and suggested that the Pope was deliberately snubbing the Kennedy clan by not issuing public statements about Ted Kennedy's passing. It had been international news when President Obama hand-delivered a letter from Kennedy to the Pope earlier this year. Time speculated that "The letter, most likely already resealed and tucked away in the Vatican archives, was probably just a dying Catholic's request for a papal blessing," adding: "In the eyes of the traditionalist wing of the Church, however, Kennedy should have been asking the Pope for forgiveness."

What Time didn't know -- what the rest of the world didn't know until minutes before Kennedy's body was lowered into its final resting spot alongside his brothers in Arlington National Ceremony last night -- was that Kennedy had asked for forgiveness, in a manner of speaking. And, unbeknownst apparently to Time's Vatican sources, the Pope had not only received the letter but had responded favorably. 

It's fascinating to try to read between the lines of the exchange, to watch Kennedy tiptoe around the issue of abortion (the issue Time singled out as being the unbridgable gap between the Kennedys and the Vatican) by embracing a "conscience protection for Catholic health care workers," and, in a not-so-veiled reference to his admitted responsibility for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, his admission to human failings and that "I have tried to right my path" through his deeds as a Senator. 

Here, according to last night's service, are the excerpts from the correspondence between Kennedy and the Pope: 

Mostly Holy Father, I ask President Obama to personally hand-deliver this letter to you. As a man of deep faith himself, he understands how important my Roman Catholic faith is to me, and I am so deeply grateful to him. I hope this letter finds you in good health. I pray that you have all of God’s blessings as you lead our church and inspire our world during these challenging times. I am writing with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines. I was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago, and although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life.

I have been blessed to be part of a wonderful family, and both of my parents, particularly my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives. That gift of faith has sustained and nurtured and provided solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path. I want you to know, your Holiness, that in my nearly 50 years of elective office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I have worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination, and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States Senator.
I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I’m committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field, and I’ll continue to advocate for it as my colleagues and I in the Senate work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.

I’ve always tried to be a faithful Catholic, your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I’ve never failed to believe and respect the fundamental tachings of my faith. I continue to pray for God’s blessings on you and on our Church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.  

According to McCarrick, the Vatican responded two weeks later thusly -- although it was also cryptically mentioned that the Vatican had only authorized Kennedy's heirs to release a partial excerpt. 

The Holy Father has read the letter which you entrusted to President Obama, who kindly presented it to him during their recent meeting. He was saddened to know of your illness, and asked me to assure you of his concern and his spiritual closeness. He is particularly grateful for your promise of prayers for him, and for the needs of our universal Church. His Holiness prays that in the days ahead, you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God, our merciful Father.

He invokes upon you the consolation and peace promised by the risen Savior to all who share in his sufferings, and trust in his promise of eternal life. Commending you and the members of your family to the loving intervention of the blessed Virgin Mary, the holy Father cordially imparts his apostolic blessing as a pledge of wisdom comfort and strength in the lord. 

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