“The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy’s shoulders because of who he was,” observed President Barack Obama in his eulogy, “but he surpassed them all because of who he became.” Thus did a sitting President honor the man who never became one, acknowledging that power is wielded in many ways.
It was fitting that, in a church famous for its healing miracles, the funeral service was a celebration of private love, for the scarred and broken family he held together; of personal strength in the face of “a string of events that would have broken a lesser man”; and of a public life spent in merry battle. “While his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did,” Obama declared. “While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that’s not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw Ted Kennedy.”
This was the spirit of the day, a moment when “memory and hope converge,” as Rev. Mark Hession put it in his homily. Before the service began, as the congregation settled into the pews of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, known as the Mission Church, you had the sense of stories being told and solace shared, but also the hum and hustle of deals being done, scores settled, favors traded in a way Kennedy would have loved. Hillary Clinton was sitting next to George W. Bush, while her husband talked earnestly with Obama. Roughly half the Senate was there, friends from both parties, along with mayors and governors and enough Kennedy cousins and children and grandchildren to fill a small legislature. “Clearly partisanship is very aside today” said Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican.
The service embraced the youngest of the clan, just as he had once been the youngest, or as Obama put it, “the baby of the family who became its patriarch; the restless dreamer who became its rock.” Kennedy’s four grandchildren, and the youngest grandchild of each of his siblings, read from his speeches, calling on the congregation to join in prayer for the causes he championed, for universal health care, for justice for the poor, for reconciliation between straights and gays.
Teddy was the only one of the Kennedy boys who got to make a funeral plan, to imagine what would be sung, what would be read, what would be remembered. The principal celebrant was Kennedy’s friend of 35 years, Boston College Chancellor The Rev. J. Donald Monan. Cellist Yo Yo Ma performed the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite number 6; he accompanied as tenor Placido Domingo sang Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” “The bread of angels becomes the bread of man..” during the celebration of the Eucharist. Mezzo Soprano Susan Graham sang Ave Maria.
Then his sons Patrick and Teddy Jr. shared their memories, of a father who was always pushing, inspiring, protecting, instructing.
Teddy Jr. remembered his father not just as the beacon of social justice or lion of the Senate, but as a lover of adventure, a mountain climber, skipper, airplane pilot, ski jumper, rodeo rider. “Our family vacations left us all injured and exhausted,” he said with a smile. Life was a classroom: he recalled trips through history, to the Old North Church and Walden pond. “And some of life’s harder lessons, like how to like Republicans.” He savored the memory of his father’s many Republicans friends, the ones who voted him the senator they most wanted to work with, the one John McCain called the “single most effective member of the Senate.”
President Obama had less chance to get to know the legendary senator than most of the other politicians in the room; but he owed him as much or more. In his eulogy, he evoked the gifts of the father and the friend, colleague and mentor, “this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy not for the sake of ambition or vanity; not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country he loved.”
“Ted Kennedy’s life’s work was not to champion the causes of those with wealth or power or special connections,” he said. “It was to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity; to make real the dream of our founding. He was given the gift of time that his brothers were not, and he used that gift to touch as many lives and right as many wrongs as the years would allow.”
And then it became clear that Obama was mourning more than the man; something else has been lost in American political life, something that Kennedy’s enduring presence had come to symbolize. “He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect,” the President said, “a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.”
Even as the Kennedy memorials unfolded, many in the Catholic Church debated extending its sacraments to a leader they felt dishonored its teachings: “A Mass of Christian Burial is a privilege not a right,” Rev. Michael Orsi argued in Human Events. “Senator Kennedy’s scandalous disregard of his Church’s teaching and the destruction of human life that may be attributed to his voting record make his funeral celebration quite dubious.” That was gentle compared with the fury in corners of the church and the blogosphere.
From the very first words of the service, Father Monan offered his answer, threading a private spiritual journey through the senator’s political life. “It was the private life of faith and of prayer,” he argued, “that held the secret to the extraordinary public life of compassion and of service.” And he and his fellow priests noted the meaning of this particular church, in the Senator’s life and that of the city for 130 years. The Mission Church is one of the biggest in Boston, though by no means the fanciest, anchoring a neighborhood once known for crime and drugs and violence, now a fizzing mix of college kids and old Irish and new immigrants and young families. It was known for so many miracles it was called “the Home of Wonders,” the Boston Globe explained, its chapel flanked by bouquets of crutches and canes and braces that mark the healings. When Kennedy’s daughter Kara was being treated for lung cancer at the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute nearby, this is where he came every day to pray.
There is much in the Congress and the country the senator leaves behind that is in need of healing. Remembering his mission and message, his determination to overcome his own wounds, his unwillingness to see opponents as enemies, was itself a kind of balm. Even in death, with the place and words and music he chose, the Senator understood that a symbol is as good a place to start as any.
Watch TIME’s Video: “The Kennedys The Agony of Grieving in Public”