Remembering JFK

black and white image of president kennedy and pope paul vi talking
President John F. Kennedy sits with Pope Paul VI at an audience at the Vatican July 2, 1963.

Fifty years ago today I learned of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy with the same stunned horror of so many others.  For us as high school students in Boston, he was “our” president – Catholic, “Bostonian,” Irish American.  His brief tenure as president gave us confidence, motivation, and a real sense of purpose in our young lives.

I felt that sense of purpose when I joined the Peace Corps, which President Kennedy founded in 1961.  Speaking to a group of University of Michigan students on the campaign trial in 1960, he asked them, “How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?  Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

I joined the Peace Corps in 1968, and as fate would have it, was assigned to Ghana.  And that inspired my future commitment to international development.

Now being here at the Vatican I have re-read the remarks of Pope Paul VI when he and President Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, met on July 2, 1963 – just months before the assassination.  The Pope recognized what the United States was doing to “not forget the high ideals of its first beginnings, nor neglect the poorer nations, and especially those new emerging states which are striving to give their people the benefits of freedom under law.”

The Pope offered upon hearing of the assassination, “We pray to God that the sacrifice of John Kennedy may be made to favor the cause he promoted and to help defend the freedom of peoples and peace in the world.”  That prayer came true.

The five decade legacy of President Kennedy has its proud adherence as we witness our nation’s bold and abundant response to the tragedy in the Philippines and the support to struggling people across the globe.  So too that legacy of support for the emerging nations of the ‘60s continues on to the nations that strive to transform themselves today.

John Kennedy’s vision lives on and today we remember his presidency, his sacrifice, and his dreams.  KH.