From the archives:
KENNEDY'S SECRET DEVOTION: IS IT TRUE HE WENT TO CONFESSION THAT DAY IN DALLAS?
By Michael H. Brown
We all have the memories, the motorcade, the shots ringing out, the riderless horse, the chill winds of November.
It was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy forty years ago this week and even those who weren't alive have the memories by way of all the footage that has been endlessly replayed. Who was this man? Why did it occur? What were the spiritual connotations?
This is what we are exploring for the next two days and we can start by saying that in a word, those connotations, as do other aspects of this great trauma, remain mysterious. From the outset, let's make it clear that John F. Kennedy was not a saint. We all know the rumors. Spiritually, there was much behind the scenes. It was not the first Kennedy tragedy. And it was not to be the last.
But America's first and only Catholic president, it appears, at least at times, was serious about his faith. Behind the scenes, he and Jacqueline hinted at deep but private devotions. While Kennedy later became notorious as an alleged womanizer, and was said to have plotted the assassination of foreign leaders, there was also a spiritual side that has never been fully portrayed and which we would now like to look at more closely.
Let's start with the rumors. Most interesting among these is that Kennedy quietly had his Confession heard and attended a small private Mass on November 22, 1963, the morning of his assassination. Such was related to us recently by a nun we respect who says she was told this by sisters who at the time were on the scene, along with a priest who was involved. If true it would be one of the most spectacular elements of the entire drama: a freewheeling president taking the time to clear the spiritual air, as if sensing his fate. Could it be true? Is there anything whatsoever to such a claim?
We checked with Daniel Landregan, who is archivist for the Dallas archdiocese and who, ironically, was an assistant administrator at Parkland Memorial Hospital at the time, witnessing the arrival of Kennedy after he was shot. "He started the morning in Fort Worth," recalls Landregan of the president. "There was a breakfast in Fort Worth. He arrived in Dallas at Love Field at about noon, immediately got into the car that he was in at the time he got hit, and so I can tell you without any hesitation or doubt that [Confession and the alleged Mass] did not happen in Dallas."
Landregan recalls the scene at the hospital -- and the fact that Kennedy received a final blessing. "I was very much involved with the president when he was brought into the emergency room," says Landregan. "I can tell you that he was anointed conditionally at Parkland by a Vincentian, Father Oscar Huber, who was pastor of Holy Trinity Church, and he anointed the president conditionally. In other words, you conditionally anoint them if there may be life in the body. The president was moribund when he was brought in -- the death process had started and was irreversible -- but at what moment death actually occurred, no one really knows."
Father Huber came, went into the trauma room, recalls Landregan, and conducted the anointing as Jacqueline joined him. A second priest, Father Thomas Kane, a Dominican, also appeared at the hospital to assist. Neither priest was called but responded spontaneously when they heard the news. By this time, of course, it was too late for Confession.
But had Kennedy received any of the sacraments earlier in the day -- in Fort Worth -- or on a previous stop in Houston?
Kennedy spent his last night in Room 850 of Fort Worth's Hotel Texas. According to the rumor we heard, he quietly contacted local nuns, possibly Sisters of St. Joseph, to arrange Confession and attend a private Mass. But a search of the archives does not indicate the existence of Sisters of St. Joseph in the area at that time. There were Ursuline, Carmelite, Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart, Dominicans, and other orders, but no St. Joseph nuns in the 1963 Catholic Directory of the Dallas diocese, which at the time covered Forth Worth.
Moreover, there is no indication of the president slipping off to Mass in the reams of reportage about the historic event. According to accounts, Kennedy arose around 7:30 a.m., showered, addressed a crowd in a nearby square after eight, and then spoke at a breakfast just after nine in the hotel's grand ballroom.
But here it gets more interesting. It is the event that may have spawned the rumors. For during breakfast a local priest, Monsignor Vincent Wolf of Holy Family Church, gave an envelope to catering manager Peter Sacu to bring to the president. In the envelope was a note that read: "We, the school children, the nuns and priests of Holy Family Church in Fort Worth, are happy to offer one thousand Masses for the spiritual and temporal welfare of you and your family, and to show our love and devotion to the President of the United States."
Were these nuns and these Masses what were later confused with the president actually attending one? Or could it be that Kennedy -- who was known to have made eye contact with Monsignor Wolf and nodded his thanks -- somehow arranged for the priest to hear his Confession in the presidential suite immediately afterwards? From 9:55 to 10:40 a.m., Kennedy and his wife had quiet time waiting to go to the airport for the quick hop to Dallas. During that period Kennedy made at least one phone call and met for some length of time in his suite with aide Ken O'Donnell. There are no records of a priest slipping into the room, although neither can such be ruled out of the realm of possibility. During the breakfast, Kennedy had made a point of showing Jackie the note from Monsignor Wolf. She too had looked down the table and smiled her thanks to the priest. Was there further contact after breakfast?
A prelate who knew Kennedy well, Archbishop Philip Hannan, now of New Orleans but at the time auxiliary bishop in Washington -- and the one who gave the eulogy at Kennedy's historic funeral -- told Spirit Daily that he never heard anything about the president receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation that day, although he wouldn't rule it out. Kennedy, says the archbishop -- who had served as an adviser since the president's days as a congressman -- was "absolutely a practicing Catholic" who prayed, attended Mass when he could, and had worries about the trip to Dallas.
"The big time he showed his faith was in the visit to Mexico City," notes the retired archbishop, who, though now 90, still directs a Catholic media organization. The archbishop recalls that as soon as Kennedy had known he was going to go to Mexico City, he had contacted Hannan to help with arrangements, particularly keeping a planned visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe as low key as possible. He didn't want to be marched up the aisle and seated in the sanctuary -- as had happened during a visit at a cathedral in Europe.
"He said, 'I don't want that to happen at all,'" recalls Hannan of the president, before the visit to this spot where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531. "He said, 'Do you know anybody down there, a cardinal, so you can steer me out of that?' I told him I did know one of the bishops and so we had it fixed that they would not greet him at the entrance of the cathedral at Guadalupe. When he went there, there was a bigger crowd than when he entered the city and went through the city with the president of Mexico."
The fact that Kennedy would choose to visit this shrine is testimony to some kind of affinity for the Blessed Mother. Indeed, his mother Rose often attended daily Mass in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and brother Robert was to die with Rosary beads in his hands. Once, says Hannan, Bobby threw all the possessions of a school room-mate out a window when that room-mate covered up a crucifix or religious picture Bobby had placed in the room. When John was a congressman and senator, he even served as an usher, taking up the Sunday collection.
But did he have his confession heard on the day in question -- November 22, 1963?
"Jackie didn't tell me that, so I don't know," says Archbishop Hannan, adding, however, that there were the deep concerns about the political climate in Texas. "He had been warned about being in Dallas by a number of top Democrats, especially Adlai Stevenson," recalls the archbishop. "He and others had warned him that they had heard a lot of real bad talk and that it was dangerous for him to go there. Jackie knew when she married him that there would be the possibility of him being assassinated," adds Hannan, who possesses never-published letters from the former First Lady.
Could this alleged foreboding -- these rumors -- have led the Catholic president to have secretly requested Confession? Was this really something Kennedy might have done? "It sure could have been," says Archbishop Hannan. "It sure could have been, because he was told that he was in danger."
According to the archbishop, Kennedy participated in the sacraments throughout his presidency, attending Mass except when travel made it difficult. "When he was outside the city, sometimes he would go to Mass, sometimes he wouldn't," notes Hannan. "He prayed. Jackie spoke to me privately about his faith, saying that, yes, he really did believe in the faith. I had been in conversation with him since he was a congressman. My dealings and consultations with him had always been secret. He wanted it that way and above all I wanted it that way because I never wanted to be tabbed as a guy who could get an interview with the president for somebody and so on. I kept it strictly private."
Jacqueline also had a quiet devotion. According to other sources, she was known to visit a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland (a short ways from Camp David) and had arranged with Hannan to have daughter Caroline properly instructed in the faith. As youths, the Kennedy boys were brought to Rome and raised with a high regard for the religion, says Hannan. "And John Kennedy absolutely kept it. There's no doubt about it. He was a practicing Catholic at the end. I absolutely know that he went to church."
So could it be that he may have wanted to attend Mass or at least have his Confession heard on the day of his assassination -- with rumors of danger swirling? It seems that in the zillions of words written in the past four decades, something of this would have come out. If it did happen, perhaps it was Monsignor Wolf, already elderly back in 1963, who took the secret to his grave. Likely? Unlikely? There is one last mystery. In Italy, the famous mystic Padre Pio, since canonized, was said to have broken down and wept at news of the assassination. When a fellow priest, Padre Aurelio, equally distressed, asked him to pray for the dead president's salvation, Padre Pio reportedly replied: "It's not necessary. He's already in paradise."
[next: the spirituality behind the Kennedy funeral and the rumors of a Kennedy "curse"]
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