Browsing From the Pastor's Desk

The Awful Grace of God

Jun 8, 2018

Next Sunday morning I’ll be heading off on my vacation. My first stop will be where I grew up: Rochester, NY. Rochester has changed a lot since then, but so have I. Life is about changes.

A special event on this stop will be a gathering on June 20 of as many of my high school classmates as we can find to celebrate our 50th anniversary of our graduation from high school. Our high school doesn’t exist anymore, and all of us have changed quite a bit since June 21, 1968, when we graduated. The world, too, has changed.

1968 was a turbulent year. After we graduated, there were tragedies like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed its blossoming democracy. But for us, April saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That was hard to take, especially because I was active in the civil rights movement in Rochester. But it was not surprising that Dr. King was killed that way, and it did not affect the progress of the movement. It did not, I think, change history.

But June was different. On June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot, and he died a day later. That did, I think, change history. He was in the middle of an election campaign and had just won the California primary. He would have gotten the nomination and most likely won the general election.

Robert F. Kennedy is an interesting study. His life was a crusade of learning. He started out working with Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade. There he learned what could go wrong with crusades, but he did learn to be “ruthless”…intense, focused, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. He was the brains behind JFK; he was his campaign manager, and when JFK appointed him Attorney General, there was an outcry about nepotism. But he was an outstanding Attorney General who brought down Jimmy Hoffa and organized crime control of the Teamsters’ Union. Robert was his brother’s confidant during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and maybe he is the one we should thank that World War III didn’t happen then.

After JFK was assassinated, Robert stayed on but could not get along with Lyndon Johnson. So he resigned and came to New York to run for Senator. Boy, was I outraged. He ran against Senator Kenneth Keating, from Rochester, who knew my father and to whom I was introduced as a child. But Kennedy won and eventually won my heart for being a great Senator and moral leader.

If John Kennedy was a lukewarm Catholic (no ifs about it), Robert was a fervent, on-fire Catholic. It motivated his politics; not just about civil rights and the urban black poor, but also about the rural poor, the white poor, especially the poor in Appalachia; and about the Latin poor, especially the migrant workers and agricultural workers. His concern was not a paternalistic concern but a compassionate concern, a Catholic Christ-like concern for those who were excluded from our prosperity and for those who produced it by their underpaid labor. It was he who brought us the fuller picture of Catholic Social Teaching in action.

That early 1968 primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was odd. When Robert Kennedy entered the campaign, it became a Catholic battle. Eugene McCarthy, the first to challenge and whup Pres. Johnson in the primaries, was also a dedicated Catholic, who in fact had been a novice at Saint John’s Abbey. Never had the social implications of the Gospel been more in the sights of the American people. Robert Kennedy’s last words…“Is everybody OK?” are a lesson to us about the common good.

When Robert Kennedy was shot, to me and my friends anyway, it was like the crucifixion. All our ideals and hopes seemed to be dying with him. It was the only time I prayed offering God a deal…take my life and spare his. God deal.

Instead of Robert Kennedy, the U.S. elected President a talented but sinister, egotistic man, bound to big money and addicted to power, who had to resign from office in disgrace.

It isn’t just that Robert Kennedy was Catholic, moral, and compassionate, but that he was intelligent, reflective, flexible, and eloquent. He was a leader in the best sense of the word. Around his grave in Arlington National Cemetery are inscribed the words he spoke to an African-American crowd in Indianapolis, a lone white man standing on the back of a truck, breaking the news to them about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus and he once wrote:
‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.’
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Fifty years later, that is still what we need. It is a different kind of pain that we are experiencing in the United States now. We still need moral, compassionate, intelligent, reflective, flexible, and eloquent leaders, but they seem to be below the horizon for the moment. Until they appear, may we learn wisdom, and so recognize them when they do appear.

The awful grace of God never ceases. My old classmates and I will be reflecting upon that.


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