It is difficult today to imagine that being Catholic in the United States in 1963 still meant you were an outsider. Catholics were exotic. We worshipped differently -- in a dead language, Latin -- and many of us attended separate schools taught by women in strange outfits. We were thought to take our orders from Rome -- a charge that plagued Kennedy in his presidential campaign, despite his reassurances to the contrary. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who also happens to be a Catholic," he said, promising that he did "not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me."
Had the president been shot because he was Catholic, I wondered silently as I prayed aloud. The idea seems preposterous in retrospect, but not then. The irony is that John F. Kennedy's death may have played as important a role as his election in reducing anti-Catholic sentiment in America.
On Nov. 25th, as the caisson on which the flag-draped casket bearing the president's body stopped outside St. Matthew's Cathedral, millions of Americans who never would have considered stepping into a Catholic church were invited inside for the first time. The three networks broadcast the entire Requiem Mass, which was celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. Traffic stopped in every major city for five minutes. Church bells tolled, and virtually all Americans gathered around television sets throughout the country.
Who would not be moved by the singing of Franz Schubert's Ave Maria or Joseph Leybach's Pie Jesu? What had seemed foreign became intimately personal. All Americans, no matter what their religion -- or lack of one -- shared in the deeply moving ritual of the requiem. At that moment, we were all Catholics.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once characterized anti-Catholicism as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." John F. Kennedy's life and death helped destroy that bias and may be one of his most enduring legacies.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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