Thursday, November 21, 2013


For all of us who were living on November 22, 1963, we recall vividly where we were on that fateful day in our country's history.

I was ordained the year earlier in Fresno, CA, and had been sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, to get a master's degree in social work.  We were all in our classes at the University when someone came to the classroom door and informed the professor what had happened in Dallas.  The class was immediately suspended.  It was late in the morning.

By this time word had spread across the Catholic University campus, and all classes were ended.  What struck me first was the total silence that prevailed.  No one spoke.  No one gave any commentary.

Since the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is on the edge of the campus, everyone began walking towards the Shrine.  It was incredible to experience these long lines of students streaming silently from every direction towards the Shrine.  All in silence.  There were many processions of people in shock and grieving, silently lifting up their own prayers to God.

After we filled the huge interior of the Shrine, all remained in silence.  Recall that 1963 was before the end of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform which permitted special Masses in the afternoon.

Then, someone began praying the Rosary out loud.  We all joined in and filled the Shrine with our prayers which echoed the pain, sadness and sorrow of our hearts and souls.  I recall being in disbelief that our well loved President had been killed, taken from us.

After the Rosary, many of us lingered about in the Shrine seeking some solace in the midst of our grief.  Then everyone departed going back to their residences or dining rooms.  Lunch time conversation was muted and   painful as we tried to cope with the enormity of what had happened.  I recall feeling so empty--unlike anything previously.

All of the radio stations began playing classical music fitting for such a sad day in our lives, interrupting now and then for a brief news update.  The few television channels likewise played somber music as the networks tried to put together some programming--satellite TV trucks and 24 hour news had not come about yet.

The evening network news featured such greats as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who helped lead the nation into its time of mourning and reflection.

Once Air Force One had returned to Washington with the body of President Kennedy, his wife Jackie, and President Lyndon Johnson, plans for a State Funeral began.

There was a large number of priest-students at Catholic University, and I recall all of us celebrating Mass the next morning for the President, his family, and our nation.  A prayerful and somber mood settled across the nation's Capitol.

Once the time and location for each of the Funeral events was set, it was obvious that we priests could not go to more than one event.  So many Washington streets would be closed, and there would be no way to get from one location to another.

Three other priests and I decided to go to the sidewalk across the street from St. Matthew's Cathedral where the Funeral Mass was to be celebrated.  The day of the Funeral was very cold, but clear.  We arrived in front of the Cathedral at least two or three hours before the Funeral so that we would have a good viewing place.

The Funeral Procession came from the Capitol to St. Matthew's Cathedral with many heads of State present.  Almost all of these heads of State walked in the Funeral Procession--an incredible sight, and not something that security leaders would ever allow today.

Some of the heads of State I recall seeing in the procession were Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, French President Charles de Gaulle, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the Duke of Edinburgh representing Queen Elizabeth II,  British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Irish President Eamon de Valera, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Frederika of Greece, and King Baudouin I of the Belgians.  It was amazing to see all of these world leaders walking in solemn procession to the Cathedral.
Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie were particularly impressive because both were very tall men.

Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston was the main celebrant and homilist.

After the Funeral Mass, most of the dignitaries were taken by automobile to the Arlington Cemetery where President Kennedy was to be buried.

I recall us making our way back to the University and viewing the Committal Services on local television.

It is amazing how strong the emotional and spiritual impact can be when a tragedy occurs.  I can recall the details of November 22, 1963 just as vividly as 50 years ago.  The same is true for all of us who remember exactly where we were on 9/11.

May God continue to watch over and protect all of us living in our great Nation.