BeliefWatch: Refocusing Faith on Service

On the day of John F. Kennedy's funeral, Robert Kennedy wrote his eldest child, who was 12, a short note: "Dear Kathleen," it said, "you seemed to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren—you have a particular responsibility now—a special responsibility to John and Joe. Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend grew up in that kind of Roman Catholic family, the kind that—in spite of the imperfections of individual members—put country and duty above personal pain, the kind that put the suffering of those with less above the suffering of those with more. In a new book, "Failing America's Faithful," Kennedy Townsend joins former senator Jack Danforth and other "old school" politicians in mourning a world in which being Christian meant caring for others and making sacrifices to solve problems.

And so she suggests reforms that she believes will revitalize her beloved Catholic Church and refocus the faithful on service. The hierarchy in Rome, she says, needs to stop obsessing about sex. It needs to rethink its position on the ordination of women and married people, on abortion, on gay clergy and gay unions. "Clearly," she says, "if we can believe in the virgin birth and that the body and blood of Christ are in the eucharist, then we can certainly believe that a woman can be a priest." These recommendations will infuriate Catholic traditionalists, but Kennedy Townsend doesn't care: she loves her church and she's not leaving. "The church," she says, "is full of possibilities."

The most moving sections of the book are those in which she remembers her religious upbringing: the evening rosary, the daily mass her mother mandated in the summer months, the wise nuns who taught her in school. The church helped her through the terrible death of her uncle and, five years later, of her own father. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, she told even more childhood stories, like the Christmas the family went skiing at Sun Valley. Some of the children were hoping to skip midnight mass in favor of sleep, but Bobby packed them into the car, saying, "Nope, we're going to mass." And who wouldn't love this one? In the early 1960s, she recalls, she went to Poland with her parents, who were visiting dignitaries and Catholic leaders. During one meeting, Kathleen's mother, Ethel, said she was hungry, and a cleric named Karol Wojtyla made her a cheese sandwich.

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