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A natural devotion

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s faith inspired his children's book

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. -- The first sign of devotion to St. Francis is right there in the driveway, a small statue on a stone wall standing like a sentry in front of the Kennedy home.

There's another statue in the backyard where four peacocks roam, a set of illustrations depicting scenes from Francis's life upstairs, and an icon in the den stashed among the water buffalo skull and the taxidermal blowfish and the dried skin of the giant anaconda that was beheaded in Colombia for eating a pet deer.

But the Franciscan iconography is just the most visible manifestation of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s devotion to the popular saint, a childhood hero transmitted from famous father to famous son beginning with that middle initial, F, for Francis.

Today, at 51, Kennedy is a big-shot environmental lawyer, a charismatic figure who dances on the edge of New York state politics, and who is now, for the first time, the author of a children's book, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi.

Kennedy inherits his public side from his fabled family -- he is, of course, one of 11 children left fatherless in 1968 when his dad, Robert F. Kennedy, was gunned down while running for president. He is a nephew of President John F. Kennedy, assassinated five years earlier, and of Edward M. Kennedy, who has represented Massachusetts in the US Senate since 1962.

But there is a private side as well, a deeply devout Catholic who attends daily Mass, a blue state Democrat who prays nightly with his wife and six children and who doesn't need a consultant to help him talk passionately and convincingly about the role of faith in his life, a thoroughly modern man who is unashamed to talk about his old-world devotion to saints.

''At this point we're being sold role models like Donald Trump -- television is saying this is a guy that we ought to be apprenticing for and modeling our lives after," Kennedy said in an interview in the sprawling home here he acquired 21 years ago. ''I think we need some positive role models as well, that stress what's important about life -- that we're not just materialistic beings, we're not just biological beings, we are spiritual beings as well. . . . It's tough living with one foot in the spiritual world and another foot in the material world, and the saints were people who showed us how to do that."

For Kennedy, the obvious role model is St. Francis, who in the early 13th century gave up a life of privilege to devote his life to preaching to the poor, and who has been designated the patron saint of ecology because of a deep connection to nature represented in stories that recount Francis preaching to birds.

Kennedy has devoted his own professional life to environmental protection, particularly as a fierce advocate for safeguarding New York's Hudson River. But he also has a deep connection to animals, particularly birds. As a child, Kennedy wanted to be a veterinarian; at 10, he picked up his fascination with falconry by reading T.H. White's ''The Goshawk." Today he trains and hunts with red-tailed hawks, keeps an owl in his den, and is licensed to operate a wildlife refuge from his house, where he nurses injured and orphaned animals and birds back to health. Animals are everywhere, alive and deceased -- his property includes a mew, where hawks sleep, and a garage in which, on a recent visit, were the skin of a coyote that had been run over nearby and the shell of a leatherback turtle sent to Kennedy by his mother, Ethel. Kennedy said his mother's brothers were all hunters and fishermen; he confesses some conflictedness about his own willingness to kill and eat animals, saying, ''I've kind of reconciled myself to the idea that an animal has given its life so that I can have a meal, but I'm ambivalent about it."

''To me, the environmental work is spiritual work -- we have a biological drive to consume the planet, to compete, and ultimately to destroy what God has created, and that can only be overcome with a spiritual fire," Kennedy said. ''I don't think nature is God, or that we ought to be worshiping it as God, but I do believe it's the way that God communicates to us most forcefully."

Devotion to social justice
The estate where Kennedy grew up, Hickory Hill in Virginia, had a lot of Franciscan iconography, Kennedy said. Today not only does he have the statues and pictures, but his children each join him in reciting the prayer of St. Francis every night.

''Francis is the obvious saint for me because . . . he's a patron saint for me and for my family really, and I'm named after Francis," Kennedy said. ''His love for animals and wildlife is something that resonated with me from when I was a little kid, and then also, his devotion to social justice issues essentially is something that continues to have appeal to me."

Kennedy's book, titled simply ''Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy," is being published this month by Hyperion Books for Children. The illustrator, Dennis Nolan, lives in Williamsburg, Mass., just north of Northampton, and teaches illustration at the University of Hartford. When Disney called Nolan to ask him to work on the book, it turned out the illustrator was about to leave to lead a painting workshop in Assisi, which was Francis's hometown.

Kennedy sees Francis as a historical figure who challenged both an out-of-touch church hierarchy and the influence of fundamentalism on the broader culture -- two issues he believes are very much present today.

''At the level of the hierarchy, at least in this country, what's happened to the Catholic Church has been disheartening to me, particularly with the pedophile scandals," Kennedy said. ''I don't even blame the priests who were doing this, because they're pathetic creatures, but I do blame the bishops who were moving them around. . . . And then, when the whole thing exploded, some of these fellas put their own careers ahead of the institution, after putting the institution ahead of people, and that was really dismaying for a lot of Catholics who believe that the church is supposed to embody the teachings of Jesus Christ."

As he talked about the Catholic Church today, Kennedy leaned forward on his couch. He said he is content to focus on elements of the church that he loves, and that he considers many priests to be role models, but he is impatient with the church's leadership. Kennedy, who describes himself as ''pro-life," appears particularly incensed by the argument put forward by some Catholic bishops that last year's Democratic nominee for president, Senator John Kerry, should have been denied Communion because of his support for abortion rights. ''The debate was a silly one, to try to deprive people of their opportunity to get closer to God, when we should be encouraging people to get closer to God, and to commune with the community," Kennedy said.

Kennedy describes his parents as ''extremely devout." (''We went to Mass daily from when we were kids, sometimes twice.") He says his parents had their children say daily prayers, grace before and after meals, read from the Bible, and attend retreats.

A recovered heroin addict, Kennedy describes his piety as a necessary way to keep himself on the right path. ''I don't do it because I'm a holy person or a particularly good person, but because I've got a constant struggle going on in my head between doing good things and bad things, and I need a lot of help in order to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis," he said when asked why he attends daily Mass.

Kennedy, who has written books about the environment for adults, said he decided to write a children's book because he wanted something to read to his kids and he couldn't find a good book about saints. He is among an increasing number of celebrities who have tried their hands at children's books in recent years, including two of his first cousins, Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

Children are everywhere in the Kennedy house -- the youngest, 3-year-old Aidan, sports a red streak of makeup on his forehead so he can look like Harry Potter, and points visitors to the owl, named Hedwig, after Harry's loyal pet. The house features a mix of memorabilia, including a stuffed Sumatran tiger shot by Sukarno and presented to Kennedy's father; a shrinelike table with photos of the late Michael Kennedy, who died in a skiing accident in 1997, and John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999; a hallway lined with letters signed by famous Americans including Henry Clay, Andrew Johnson, John Tyler, and Earl Warren; and a stack of videos ranging from ''The Little Mermaid" to ''Pirates of the Caribbean."

''The more I learn about fatherhood, the less I know," said Kennedy, whose children range in age from 3 to 20. ''One of the central functions for me of parenthood is to try to imbue children with noble thoughts and heroic thoughts, and I think that you've got to give them role models who acted heroically during their lives and made sacrifices."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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