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Fr Billy Swan

This Wednesday, 22nd November, marks the 60th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in Dallas Texas in 1963. The murder of President Kennedy was a day of great mourning for all Americans but there was also an outpouring of grief here in Ireland. This Irish American was the first Catholic to be elected president of the United States and his rise to the highest office of American politics represented a moment of pride and triumph of the Irish abroad. His death was all the more deeply felt in Wexford for he was welcomed to New Ross and his ancestral home in Dunganstown only five months previously in June that year. His visit had been a triumph as the genial, young and handsome President endeared himself to all with warmth and wit.

All of his speeches in Ireland were animated by an obvious pride in being the first Irish American Catholic President of the United States whose ancestors came from our land and emigrated to America during the famine. On the 60th anniversary of his death, it seems fitting to look back on his legacy and to consider whether or not his Catholic faith shaped his thinking and vision as a Statesman and political leader.

Master Orator

In July 2019, I travelled to Boston in the US for the first time. First stop was the JFK Library in the south of the city that contained everything you needed to know about the life, background and political career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I recall that different rooms of the Library (it was more like a museum) were dedicated to different episodes of the late President’s life. In each room, playing in the background were speeches given by him at significant moments of his time as President. These included his speech at his inauguration as President on 20th January 1961, his speech announcing America’s ambition to go to the moon before the end of the 1960’s, his address in New Ross during his visit to Ireland and his words at the time of the Bay of Pigs crisis. As I listened carefully to these speeches, what they all had in common was the quality of their inspiration, the vision they contained, their delivery by a master orator and poetic power that activated the human imagination to dream bigger and hope for more.

Particpation not Passivity

His inaugural address as President is widely considered to be one of the best presidential speeches of its time. In it he weaved the narratives of American history with that of the world whilst issuing a stirring call to a renewed vision of American life. Only sixteen years after the end of the Second World War, President Kennedy called for a new order of peace and justice that would inspire new hope in a new generation. It was in that inaugural speech that he issued one of his best remembered statements: “And so fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”.[1] 

Here was a call to all citizens to participate in their countries’ future and not to be passive bystanders. This was a theme he retuned to often throughout his presidency as he sought to engage people and mobilse their energy towards nobility and service.

It could be argued that his emphasis on participation was a response to Communism in the Soviet Union and other dictatorial regimes where the fundamental right to participate in public life was denied since it was considered a threat to the State itself. Yet there was another institution that was waking up to the importance of participation at the same time. Pope John XXIII with his encyclical Pacem in Terris, published in April in 1963, encouraged Christians to engage meaningfully in public life. Earlier in 1962, Pope John had convoked the Second Vatican Council, a synod of bishops from all over the world.

Since then, the Church has developed this teaching to such an extent that ‘Participation’ is now one of the fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The ‘Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’ published in 2004, states that:

“Participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen…but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders” (para. 190).

In modern times, Pope Francis has called for a greater participation of all the baptised in the life of the Church, encouraging and facilitating this through the synodal pathway. Therefore, in the light of these developments, President Kennedy’s call of ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’, seems deeply prophetic.

Catholic Imagination

While pondering the President’s speeches, what is strongly present is the power of imagination that enabled him to look beyond his time to the future and to what was possible and yet necessary. He spoke: “Our deep spiritual confidence that this nation will survive the perils of today…compels us to invest in our nation’s future, to consider and meet our obligations to our children and the numberless generations that will follow”.

In many of his most inspiring speeches, he invited his listeners to ‘dream’ of a different, better world and to work to that end with vision and courage. He said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men and women who can dream of things that never were…and ask why not”. Compare these words to those of Pope John XXIII in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council on 11th October 1962: “We believe we must disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster as if the end of the world were at hand”. In modern times, Pope Francis also urges young people to dream and to embrace their youth as a time “marked by dreams which gather momentum, by relationships which acquire more and more consistency and balance…The love of God and our relationship with the living Christ do not hold us back from dreaming; they do not require us to narrow our horizons. On the contrary, that love elevates us, encourages us and inspires us to a better and more beautiful life” (Christ is Alive, 137-138).

This Catholic imagination values nationalism and patriotism and yet looks beyond the interests of single nations to unity among all humanity. Again, from the President: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures and we are all mortal”. Contrast these words with those of Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti, published in October 2020 on social friendship and fraternity:

“It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together” (Fratelli Tutti, 8).

Education for Life

Another fascinating observation is President Kennedy’s vision for education. He himself would have been formed and educated in the classical model whereby what you learned was connected to who are and are meant to become. At the heart of this educational vision was truth. Education is an adventure towards the discovery of truth that makes demands on us. These demands are not to be resisted because they are hard but embraced because they are right. Again, the President’s conviction did not come out of nowhere but emerges from the Catholic faith tradition. Contrast these words of Kennedy to what the late Pope Benedict XVI said many years later: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger people” (President Kennedy); “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness” (Pope Benedict, XVI).

For the late President, politics and power are subordinate to the endurance of the human spirit and in order for us humans to endure, we need to be faithful to the truth, no matter where it takes us. He said: “Truth is a tyrant - the only tyrant to whom we can give our allegiance. The service of truth is a matter of heroism”. Here President Kennedy stands firmly within the faith tradition of the Church which states that: “Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it…Modern times call for an intense educational effort and a corresponding commitment on the part of all so that the quest for truth cannot be ascribed to the sum of different opinions” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 198).

This teaching is a subversive antidote to what many describe as our modern ‘post-truth culture’ where objective truth is increasingly denied as merely subjective to every person and their interpretation. As the saying goes: ‘You have your truth, I have mine’. While this may seem like a call for a tolerant society that accommodates all views and none, on closer inspection, it has the potential to tear society apart when people are not united or committed to common values and truth. Weak bonds of tolerance are easily broken and cancelled as we see happening in an increasingly ‘woke culture’ where alternative views are not tolerated – not because they are false – but because they are deemed offensive to others. Contrast this to the width and breath of the President’s vision:

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation”.

On the same day that President Kennedy was killed, the Belfast born writer C.S. Lewis died too. In 1943, Lewis published a prophetic work called ‘The Abolition of Man’. In the book, Lewis observed that educational theorists who described themselves as progressive, were replacing the classical emphasis on objective values such as beauty, goodness and truth with subjective sentiments. Lewis argued with subtlety and precision, that nothing less than the future of human nature itself was at stake.

Sixty years on from the deaths of Lewis and Kennedy, matters have only gotten worse with the frequent denial that there is such a thing as human nature at all. Yet, as the Roman poet Horace famously said: “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back” (Epistles, Book I, 10). She does indeed. The classical model for education was founded on human beings endowed with a common nature that is naturally drawn to the good, true and beautiful and that flourishes in conformity to that goodness, truth and beauty. In contrast modern models of education are founded less on what it means to be human and more on our tastes and whims. In the words of Lewis: “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique” (The Abolition of Man). If these insights of Lewis and Kennedy who died on the same day were prophetic in the mid-twentieth century, how much more they ring true today.


[1] All quotations from President Kennedy are taken from the book Quotations of John F. Kennedy, Applewood Books, Massachusetts, 2008. The only exception being the quote from his speech to the Oireachtas.


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