For each of us yearning and working for a more just world, it is good to take time to reflect on our inner life. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former two-term Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and the eldest daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, talked about her experience integrating an inner life with a public one. She has had a long history in politics and public service. Today she is devoted to improving retirement security for all Americans.—particularly the young. “Eighty percent of Americans fear their retirement more than they fear death,” she explained. “We don’t have a retirement system, but a ragtag list of offerings which helps some but misses many”. She is the author of Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their way.
I grew up in a family where political action was intertwined with religious faith. On the spiritual side we went to Sunday mass, and every night, we would say our prayers recite the rosary, and our father would read us a chapter of the Bible. In the summer, Mum would take us to daily Mass. Each room had holy water container. We were expected to bless ourselves every time we entered.
Whenever we did a good deed, my mother announced that we were getting a soul out of Purgatory. Our faith in God, in the Blessed Mother, the Holy Days of Obligation pervaded our thoughts and actions.
Because we had so much tragedy in our family, we often turned to prayer for comfort. Many of my first memories were praying for my Uncle Joe who was killed in the war, for my Aunt Kathleen who had died a few years before I was born and for whom I was named. When I was four my mother’s parents were killed in a plane crash and they were then added to our nightly prayers. In 1963 my uncle Jack was killed, in 1966 my uncle George died, and two years later, my father was killed.
Prayer was a communal activity. In the company of family and friends, we shared our pain and suffering. We also shared our hope for a better future. Our family would pray around the bed with our mother. We would go to mass together. When my grandmother got sick, the priest would come to her house, and all of the cousins would have mass together. It was a very powerful action that brought us so closely together.
I learned the importance of merging religion and activism not only from my family but from the Catholic schools I attended. One nun stood out: Mother Mouton. She was from New Orleans and a Mardi Gras queen who had trained as a lawyer. But she felt the calling and had become a Sacred Heart nun. At our school, the silence was very important, especially during Lent. You had to be quiet as you walked through the hallways and were not to talk until class started. About this, Mother Mouton often said something that is one of my favorite sayings: “Silence is golden but sometimes it’s just plain yellow.” She got it. Too often, silence is chicken.
One clear lesson that I learned from school and from my family is that life is a struggle. The Church had countless stories of martyrs—killed and tortured in the most gruesome ways. And even we were not totally immune. Some of my earliest memories were of my father fighting the mob. I have joked that when most 3 or 4-year-olds were taken to the playground, my mother and father took me to the Senate committee hearings on racketeering. My first words were “I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” Not so funny is the fact that when I was in third grade that the mob threatened to throw acid in the eyes of my brothers and me. As a consequence, I could not leave Our Lady of Victory with the other children till our mother came to pick us up.
I learned from my parents that there was always going to be a fight. And there was never an illusion that the problems would be resolved in this life. Instead, one always has to gather one’s strength—to pray, to be prepared and to gird one’s soul. One can never rest easy. My father realized that many Americans saw God as white. When he went to South Africa, he asked the students there
“Suppose God is Black?”. That was a totally new concept. When he returned to the United States he wrote a front-page article for Look Magazine which boldly posed the question.
An important part of our training was being given time to be contemplative and thoughtful and to pray. When I was about to start writing a book, my advisor Father Drinan suggested that I do a ten-day retreat at a Jesuit retreat house. The book was how the left had forgotten God and the right
had shrunk God to three issues: abortion, same sex marriage and stem cell research. Jesus had been much more interested in the poor, the stranger, those who had been left out and left behind. Father Drinan thought that if I was going to write about something important that I needed to think and pray about it first before speaking out on it.
With the magnitude of problems we’re facing today, the need for people to engage in self-reflection is still important. We need to find groups where we can talk together and to find ways to gather strength for the struggles we face in our lives. We need to make sure when we’re engaged in political action that we’re thoughtful about those we’re fighting for and thoughtful about those we’re fighting against.
The best thing we can do is to find a team and work together with others. After all, Christ did not do his work on his own. He figured out that he should get some terrific women and men to help him.
For more on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, please view – https://www.epi.org/people/kathleen-kennedy-townsend. You can follow on Twitter @KKT_EPI