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By Peggy Weber

Friday afternoons were pretty easy in the 4th Grade. After lunch we had art and then headed next door to church for Benediction. However, On Nov. 22, 1963 things were different. We were told to put away our art supplies right away and clear our desks. The whole school was rushed out of the building. The teachers were visibly upset. Something was wrong.

We soon learned that President Kennedy been shot. 

There was no horsing around in church that afternoon. The mood was different. Some of the sisters were crying. All the students at Holy Name Grammar School in Springfield were on their knees trying to pray the first Catholic president back to health.

Since then I have learned that many other students were taken to church that fateful Friday. Catholic school children throughout the land were doing the only thing that can be done in face of tragedy and sorrow — they prayed. 

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I recall that somehow we were informed that the president had died and were sent home. I think we were let out early. You could do that back then. Kids went home for lunch. Entire classes were kept after school for talking too much.

I rushed home and was greeted at the door by my mother. One look at her face told me that she knew the sad news. She looked really, really sad. I began to cry and we hugged. This was followed by our usual afternoon ritual of a cup of tea — mine had lots of milk in it.

Friday afternoons also meant tap dancing class at Charmaine’s School of Dance. I told my mother I was too upset to go to class. She said I had to go anyway because you had to pay for the class whether you did or did not go. We didn’t waste money. I trudged down Alderman Street to White Street and shuffled and pointed — with very little enthusiasm.

That night — those were meatless Fridays back then — we did something very unusual. My dad set up a card table in the living room and we watched TV. 

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We never ate in front of a TV when I was little. I knew that night that things were really different.

In a way, this was the second death that had struck our family that year. In June our beloved Pope John XXIII had died. They were the special “Johns” in our world. However, this one hurt more. It was violent and tragic. It left two children without their dad. It left everyone wondering why.

The weekend was a blur as our family was glued to the old black and white set in our living room. Finally on Sunday, my mom told us to go out and play. We did. We were not out long when one of the seven kids from the house next door burst out of his front door. He was a few years older and had our attention as he said, “I just saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot.”

We rushed back into our homes to learn more. The unreal weekend continued. 

I remember black-rimmed prayer cards in church.

I remember the riderless horse.

And, of course, I remember the salute from young “John-John.”

I know the world changed that day — just as I watched it change for my children on September 11th.

But one thing has not changed. On the night of September 11th, our parish gathered for Mass. We went to our knees in the face of violence and tragedy — just as I had as a fourth grader 50 years ago. 

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Photos courtesy of Catholic News Service

 

 

By Don Clemmer

Editor’s Note: Don Clemmer is the assistant director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C. He wrote this blog for the memorial of Blessed John XXIII.

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Pope John XXIII and  Pope Francis hold the respective distinctions of ushering in the most significant reforms the Catholic Church had seen in a millennium and being the first Latin American and Jesuit pope. But both men are also witnesses to how Christian holiness permeates daily life in moments big and small and that it’s not just what a person does, but how he or she does it, that matters.

Sure, both men provide visions of The Big Picture. John XXIII gave his recipe for sustainable global peace in his final encyclicalPacem in Terris (1963). And Pope Francis has put in place with lightning speed his program of global solidarity and a Church that goes out to the margins to serve.

But Francis has also focused much of his preaching and teaching energy — exemplified by his daily Mass homilies especially — on the “small things,” behaviors of everyday life like gossip, laziness and cynicism. These are not lofty theological concerns, but pitfalls of human behavior that apply to everyone. And he doesn’t criticize them lightly. Often the devil gets dragged into it. It’s as if the last thing Pope Francis wants is a Church that “believes correctly” but is populated by otherwise miserable people.

Blessed John XXIII

While this may sound like “papal micromanaging” to some, it’s more like a cheat sheet for the Christian life. Yes, you know the 10 Commandments and the Catechism, but just in case there was any doubt, the end result should look like this…

John XXIII had his rules for dealing with the small stuff too. His famous managerial maxim (recently quoted by Pope Francis in his interview with the world’s major Jesuit journals) was “See everything. Overlook a great deal. Correct a little.” His guide to living together in harmony (attributed to St. Augustine) had a similar spirit: “In essentials, unity. In doubtful matters, liberty. In all things, charity.” 

Pope John’s leadership style was on full display at the Council. He didn’t participate, wishing to promote freer discussion among the bishops, but watched the proceedings from his apartment on closed circuit television. However, when the curia proposed a highly unpopular draft for the document on divine revelation and the bishops did not have quite enough votes to reject it outright, Pope John, to the Council fathers’ surprise, intervened and threw out the draft. He didn’t see the point in such an unpopular schema taking up so much of the Council’s time and energy. See everything. Overlook a great deal. Correct a little.

Pope smiles as he leaves general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis exercised a similar sense of discernment and freedom in the act of moving ahead Pope John’s canonization without the required second miracle. Look at the witness of his life! The world has already proclaimed him a saint! This system was meant to guide us, not hinder us. Pope Francis seems to be saying. And he is, after all, the pope.

From the model of John XXIII to the current admonitions of Pope Francis, Catholics everywhere can learn from these men how to discern what is truly important in matters large and small and learn follow their lead in in exemplifying the key to a Christian witness: “See how they love another.” Both men extended that love, in word and deed, to the entire world.