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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

November 15, 2013

John Fitzgerald Kennedy: First Catholic President

November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the first and only Roman Catholic President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This might be a good time to remind your students of the prejudice faced by Kennedy when he ran for President in 1960. Though a popular war hero and fourteen-year senator, he had to overcome the concern that his patriotism and religion would conflict. Some Protestants feared that the pope would control the presidency. Kennedy had to directly confront anti-Catholic sentiment during the campaign.

In a famous speech to the Southern Baptist leaders, Kennedy reassured them he would be answerable to the American Constitution, not the pope. He declared, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President, but the candidate who happens also to be Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me." Kennedy's words reassured many, but his margin of victory was slim, less than a half-percent. Surveys conducted after the election revealed an anti-Catholic prejudice contributed to the close race.

Share a copy of Kennedy's speech on religion (also includes an audio link).

Ask the students to apply some of the themes of President Kennedy's speech to issues facing the Church and nation today.

Also, in this season of Thanksgiving, pray with your students the following "Thanksgiving Prayer" written by Southern California shop owner Kathryn Kay in 1941. A few years after President Kennedy's death, Kay was told that this prayer had inspired his most famous words: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Thanksgiving Prayer

God, ev'ry year about this time, according to routine, I've bowed my head in the accepted way and offered thanks, like some well synchronized machine that prayed because it was the time to pray.

But, God, this year is different, this year I seem to feel America's Thanksgiving is my own, that in my nation's gratitude I have a part that's real, a part that until now I've never known.

And, God, this year a deep humility has filled my heart, a newborn pride rings true thruout my soul because I do belong, because I have and am a part, a tiny part of one tremendous whole.

I think I know the feeling of those first Americans who said, "We must give thanks for this, our land."

I cherish now the rights that are each woman's, ev'ry man's, the rights I've just begun to understand.

This year my heart has learned what all Thanksgiving Days are for, true thankfulness at last I realize, but, God, I'm sorry that it took the tragedy of war in other lands to open up my eyes.

Again I bow my head but this time deep within me stirs a mighty prayer, part of one vast design, "God, help me make America as proud that I am hers— as I am proud, and grateful she is mine!"

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