October 25, 2011

The JFK funeral: a cultural spotlight

A few months ago, back when I was more responsible in keeping this blog updated, I did an interview with David Von Pein in which we discussed the extensive footage available of the television coverage surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination.  At that time I suggested - all right, I virtually promised - that I'd return to this subject.  So here we are, and what I want to look at today is a very particular part of the coverage, along with its cultural significance. 

Many of us have seen the usual clips: Cronkite's announcement of Kennedy's death, the live covearge of Oswald's murder by Ruby, the salute by young John Jr. (which wasn't actually captured live, or at least not in the way that we see it in retrospectives), the bugler cracking during the playing of Taps at the gravesite.  But what interests me most, and has for quite some time, is the Kennedy Funeral Mass.

Very few clips of the Requiem Mass are shown in the standard retrospective, and until I got serious about digging through the hours and hours of online video, I'd pretty much dismissed the idea that I'd see more of it.  Imagine, then, my surprise at finding almost all of CBS's live coverage of the Mass, on the YouTube network of JFK1963Videos.  (David has mentioned to me that he has this coverage as well, but has not uploaded it to YouTube.)





This is a precious piece of footage, for it gives us one of the last glimpses of the pre-Vatican II Mass, the Tridentine (today known as the Extraordinary Form).  The Mass is said entirely in Latin, with the priest facing the altar (ad orientem) for much of the time.  For those who have no memory of the "old Mass," this may be a revelation.  For those who do remember it, or who have attended an Extraordinary Form Mass in the last few years (as this Mass once again becomes more available), there may be even more eye-openers.  For those who aren't Catholic, or even religious, there are many interesting aspects of the television coverage.  Nevertheless, much of what follows could be seen as "inside baseball" aimed at the more liturgically-minded.

The Kennedy Requiem was a Low Mass, at the request of the Kennedy family; in other words, the Ordinary of the Mass is spoken rather than chanted or sung.  (A High Mass, much more elaborate, would have run much longer, and the family was said to be not up at such a traumatic time.)  Those who are really detail-oriented, however, will note the six candles lit on the Altar; two are more usual during a Low Mass.

Richard Cardinal Cushing, an old friend of the Kennedy family, is the celebrant of the Mass.  As was the rule at the time, he is dressed in black vestments, rather than the white that we often see nowadays.  (As an aside, I think the black is much more appropriate, reminding us that the Requiem Mass is said not for the benefit of the living, but for the dead, who now more than ever are in need of our prayers.)

Listen to the amount of music being played during the Mass.  It obscures the prayers at the foot of the Altar, the Kyrie, the opening prayer, and the Epistle.  Even during the Gospel, a hymn is being played.  True, the Latin would have been meaningless to many of the non-Catholics there, but this would strike many today as quite unusual.  (Note, for what it's worth, that the soloist - Luigi Vena, who sang at the marriage of John and Jacqueline - appears to be seated, rather than standing, while he sings.  Interesting.)

The Canon of the Mass is silent in the Tridentine; nevertheless, Cardinal Cushing's voice is clearly audible.  My thought is that we're hearing the television microphones picking up his voice, as he definitely raises it when reading those parts of the Mass that are intended to be heard by the congregation.  Once again, we can hear organ music being softly played as Cardinal Cushing recites the Canon.  (Listen to the way he rattles through this; I suspect he could have spoken much of it in his sleep.)

A running commentary on the Mass is offered by Fr. Leonard Hurley of the communications department of the Archdiocese of New York.  Sometimes he is offering a translation of the Latin being spoken by Cardinal Cushing; other times he simply explains the significance of what is transpiring for the benefit of those not familar with a Catholic Mass.  In general I found his commentary to be quite good, although given what we now know of JFK's character some of the comments are in retrospect somewhat ironic. 

(I mention this because there are those in the Catholic blogosphere who are quite - let us say aggrieved - at the amount of commentary which takes place during televised Catholic Masses today.  A lot of it does seem like chatter.  And yet there is a long tradition of commentary during a televised Mass.  It is a teaching moment for both Catholics and non-Catholics, and we should not lose sight of that.)

You'll also notice that the eulogy does not technically take place during the Mass, but after Cardinal Cushing has spoken the words of dismissal.  This is, in fact, what the Church has always prescribed for a funeral Mass, but it is seldom adhered to.

There are other rituals which may seem unusual to us today, but the great bulk of them have to do with the specifics of the Tridentine.  I find this interesting, however, because it offers us a rare glimpse of a Tridentine Mass of the time.  We are not reading about how it was done "in the day,"  nor is this an idelized version of how we expect it should have been.  This is the actual Mass, as it happened, during a transitory time in the Catholic Church, when Vatican II was in its heyday, and when the Mass itself was in the process of undergoing radical changes.  Within the next couple of years Latin would be replaced more and more by the vernacular until it would virtually disappear in many parishes; by 1970 the Novus Ordo, or "new Mass," would be introduced.

It also harkens back to a time when religion was an accepted part of the culture, and this is represented through the respectful way in which the Mass is televised.  The camera angles are often quite good for the time, giving the viewer an excellent view of what is going on, but it is not intrusive.  The camera zooms in for close-ups at various times during the Consecration, underscoring the importance of this part of the Mass.  The religious significance of the Mass, and in particular the Catholic belief in the benefits of prayer for the dead, are not downplayed.  Aside from Fr. Hurley (whose words were broadcast on all three networks), there is no commentary from network correspondents.

Perhaps this is my anal side coming through, but I find this to be absolutely fascinating.  This is a true glimpse of the cultural time, and while it may primarily interest Catholics, I think there's something here for everyone.

For those of you who would like to view the entire Mass, some notes:

- Coverage of the Mass begins with part 115 as seen in the clip above, and running through part 119.
- You'll notice that in part 117 there is an edit at 1:59 where we lose much of the Canon of the Mass. This portion can be seen here, beginning at about the 4:13 mark.

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