“In all the heartbreaking dramas of the world, a woman is summoned to have her heart pierced mystically, as a man’s heart is riven with steel. A Jacqueline leaning over a John is a compassionate beating of a heart in rhythm with a Mary leaning over a crucified Jesus. Grant the infinite distance between a God-man dying for the sins of the world and a man dying because of a man’s inhumanity to man; grant that unbridgeable span between voluntarily laying down one’s life and having it violently taken away – the latter still derives its value from the former, as the coin from the die.
I was in Rome in the first shattering shock of the death of President Kennedy. The suddenness of his death came like and earthquake; it affected so many and in such magnitude that one could not find a heart to console – others, too, were inconsolable. In lesser bereavements, there are those who are not involved, but then there were no others to wipe away tears, for they too were mourners.
Nothing is as democratic as death, for all of a sudden, there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, male or female, socialist or totalitarian, Republican or Democrat. All suddenly realize the wickedness of the world in which we live. Not until we see what is done to the humanity-loving do we grasp the frenzied hate which will not be stilled by the tears of a little John or the whimpering sadness of a Caroline.
It takes a sacrificial death to break down the walls of division. When some men refuse to acknowledge others as their equals under God, words will not unite them. It takes blood. It took a Lincoln’s blood to unite a nation; it has taken a Kennedy’s blood to prepare for the equality of men in the same nation. This is the mystery of his death – the price men destined for greatness have to pay to prove that love is stronger than hate.
Above all our national figures, these two Presidents of Sorrow stand forever near the Man of Sorrows saying: ‘I will stand here at Thy side; despise my nation not.’
Perhaps we never thought of it before, but underneath our grief was the surprising truth that we measure the enormity of a crime by the nobility of the victim. The same act committed against a fellow citizen would have been murder too, but it would have convulsed us more if the mayor of a city were killed in identical circumstances; and still more if it had been the governor of a state. The top of the tottering pyramid of grief is reached when the president of a nation is assassinated.
The impact, the scandal, and the paralysis mount with the eminence of the one slain. Thus, suddenly, without our ever having suspected that we knew any theology, we affirmed in grief that principle that ‘Sin is always measured by the one sinned against.’ I will not carry it any further than to say: Suppose that Perfect Innocence and Truth and Love become a victim to evil and mediocrity, and was put to death by us? Would not our grief be almost too deep for tears?
We have walked with pleasure for many a mile and we have smiled and smiled, and learned nothing. But what a vista of the mystery which lies in the heart of the world’s redemption was unveiled when we, as a people, walked with sorrow! People become more united in sorrow than in pleasure. Across the nation, citizens were enjoying theaters, sports, parties, cocktails, and a thousand and one pursuits of eros in which the ego satisfies itself under the guise of a love of another. Then all these disparate and separate enjoyments, like scattered drops of mercury, suddenly came together in one center – the broken heart of America. There were no longer political parties, business competitors, grasping fingers – there was beating only one heart.
It is well to be proud of our country, but if the memory of a death means anything, we will no longer boast as if the peacock were our national symbol, saying: ‘I am an American,’ but, in the full consciousness that our symbol is an eagle mounting ever upwards, we will say: ‘May I be worthy to be an American.’”
- Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen (The Power of Love)