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As night fell, burial - and revelation

Senator’s letter to pope, Vatican reply read aloud

By Michael Kranish and Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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ARLINGTON, Va. - As darkness fell and Kennedy family members and friends gathered around, Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s personal appeal to the pope was read aloud at his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, reflecting a sense of humanity, humility, and enduring faith.

“I know that I have been an imperfect human being,’’ Kennedy wrote, “but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path.’’

It was a poignant, final comment from Kennedy himself, contained in the previously undisclosed contents of his letter asking Pope Benedict XVI to pray for him, a letter that was delivered personally by President Obama during a trip to the Vatican last month.

As the single eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave burned just steps away up a grassy slope, and the Capitol dome and the monuments of Washington were illuminated against the night sky, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick stood next to Kennedy’s casket and recited excerpts from the letter, as well as a reply from an unnamed aide to the pope. It was a stunning and powerful moment that closed an extraordinary day of farewell observances.

“I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings,’’ Kennedy’s letter stated. “I continue to pray for God’s blessings on you and our Church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.’’

The Vatican reply came two weeks later: “His Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God our merciful Father.’’

The letters lent a deeply personal tone to what was otherwise a full military burial, taking place on a gentle rise in the heights overlooking Washington, under the shelter of two maple trees. The journey from Hyannis Port to Boston to this Virginia hillside ended as a bugler played taps, and Kennedy’s wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, clasped the flag that had draped her husband’s casket. Bells rang, chiming the hour of 8 p.m. At the command of “Ready, Fire!’’ a corps of seven riflemen from the US Army’s Third Infantry, standing nearby, fired three volleys.

McCarrick attributed the idea for reading from the letters to the senator’s widow.

“I was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago, and although I continue treatment the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old, and preparing for the next passage of life,’’ Kennedy said in his letter to the pope, which was delivered by Obama on July 10.

Kennedy listed the ways in which his politics comported with Catholic social teaching, saying: “I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I’ve worked to welcome the immigrant, fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war.’’

Kennedy’s letter only obliquely referred to his support for abortion rights, a position that put him sharply at odds with church teaching; nor did the excerpt from the Vatican reply touch on the issue.

The Vatican response was strikingly pastoral in tone, expressing the pope’s “concern and his spiritual closeness’’ to Kennedy, and bestowing on the senator an apostolic blessing from the pope. That the Vatican responded at all is news - conservative bloggers have for days been claiming that the alleged lack of a response was evidence of the Vatican’s antipathy to Kennedy.

The Washington leg of Kennedy’s journey, coming after an Air Force jet ferried his body from Hanscom Air Force Base to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, drew thousands of mourners to the city’s streets.

Congressional staff members and throngs of tourists and local residents surrounding the US Capitol cheered as the hearse carrying Kennedy’s casket pulled in front of the marble dome where the Massachusetts senator served with 10 presidents, and, through the hundreds of laws he authored, helped shape a nation. In a scene that at times was both festive and mournful, the gathering of nearly 1,000 joined in “America the Beautiful’’ and waved good-bye to him from the Senate steps. Vicki Kennedy hugged tearful longtime staff members and several members of Congress also in attendance, and blew kisses to the crowd.

From the Capitol, the procession crawled slowly down Constitution Avenue, which was lined with mourners for most of its length, passing the Lincoln Memorial before crossing the Potomac River to the cemetery.

The burial occurred at a sacred station in Kennedy lore, an emerald shoulder of earth that the Massachusetts senator visited often, in view of the plots where brothers John and Robert have long rested. Unlike his brothers, the 77-year-old Edward Kennedy had years to contemplate how and where he would be buried, and in preparing for death, he decided to follow the example of his brothers, just as he had in his political life.

In contrast to the funeral at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, which was packed with politicians, friends, and dignitaries, the service here was more like a quiet family conversation, with three generations of Kennedys and in-laws, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. Vicki Kennedy was accompanied by her parents and her children from her first marriage, as well as the senator’s children and grandchildren. The senator’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and his sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, joined the ceremony.

Darkness made it difficult to see the family in their final moments of grief, giving them a measure of privacy after three extraordinarily public days of mourning.

John Kennedy’s grave is marked by a field of Massachusetts granite and an eternal flame, Robert Kennedy’s by a marble marker and a white wooden cross. Edward Kennedy’s is also marked with a simple oak cross, painted white. The surviving brother had come to Arlington National Cemetery for decades, often without fanfare, usually a half-dozen times a year. Today, the cemetery’s visitor center is dominated by a large photo of the scene of President Kennedy’s burial. A veiled Jacqueline Kennedy holds the flag from her husband’s coffin. Robert Kennedy is seen with his head bowed. Edward Kennedy is also amid the mourners.

Now all are at Arlington again, resting side by side.

Michael Paulson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.