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Just Forty Years Ago

I was Robert Kennedy's press secretary, and I had received maybe 10 calls from various media, reporting accusations from angry Catholic phone callers complaining the senator had "taken communion" in a Protestant church.
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On the day of Martin Luther King's assassination, just 40 years ago, Senator Robert Kennedy postponed his campaign for the presidency until after Dr. King's funeral, and returned to Washington.

The two days later were filled with rioting and fires in the capital and on Sunday, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the civil rights leader in D.C., called Senator Kennedy and asked him to walk around the riot-torn areas with him, from church to church, to see if they could calm down the community and, perhaps, end the violence.

I was Senator Kennedy's press secretary, and so I kept whatever vigil I could over the news media from the campaign headquarters on L Street. By midday, I had received maybe ten calls from various TV and print media, reporting accusations from angry Catholic phone callers complaining the senator had "taken communion" in a Protestant church, apparently then a serious Catholic offense (dare I say a "cardinal" sin?). I placed an emergency call to Senator Kennedy to find out just what had happened to prompt this widespread unhappiness with what was, after all, an important constituency.

I explained the problem to him, and asked what, exactly, had happened. He answered, rather heatedly, that he certainly hadn't "taken communion" at a Protestant church. He explained that he and Rev. Fauntroy had been to a number of churches in their walking tour of Anacostia and other largely black sections of the city. "What did you do at the churches?" I asked. "Very little," he responded. He told me they had listened to a few sermons, and in one or two they took some bread that had been passed along the pews, taken a bite, and passed it on to the person in the next seat. "That's all," he said. "Senator," I answered, "I think what you did is you took communion in a Protestant church." We agreed I should talk to some Catholic authority and get an expert opinion.

Not being very skilled or knowledgeable about Catholic authorities in the city (especially on a Sunday -- especially on that Sunday), I called the Archdiocese of the District and asked to speak to Cardinal Patrick O"Boyle, then the archbishop of Washington. I explained our problem to an aide who answered the phone, who laughed in a friendly way (a response from which I took great hope), and said he'd take it up with the Cardinal and get right back to me.

Indeed, he did, and said the Cardinal had also laughed, sympathetically, and said I should direct any media calls to his office, where he would read a statement from Cardinal O'Boyle, which the Cardinal was drafting as we spoke. The statement said Senator Kennedy had violated no rule of the Church, he had not by any means "taken communion" merely by an informal sharing of bread, and that indeed by walking around to churches with Reverend Fauntroy they were each "performing God's work."

After I expressed my gratitude, there was a short pause, followed by the words, "and Cardinal O'Boyle says to wish Senator Kennedy good luck." It was the only bright spot in an otherwise frightful weekend, and I have never been in a church since where communion was being offered, nor even seen the word "communion," without saying a silent prayer for the soul of Cardinal O'Boyle.

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