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 CNS Story:

CATHOLIC-KENNEDY Sep-29-2008 (680 words) With photo and book cover. xxxn

Interviews with mix of Catholics reveal common theme, author says

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As a lifelong Catholic and longtime international human rights activist, Kerry Kennedy sometimes could not reconcile the faith that motivated tremendous acts of courage against oppression with an institutional church that would not permit her three daughters to serve as altar girls at her northern Virginia parish.

Although the Diocese of Arlington, Va., changed its policy on altar girls in 2006, her frustration with that dichotomy and others in the Catholic Church led Kennedy, 49, to conversations with 37 Catholics or former Catholics about their experiences in the church and to a "wonderful discovery."

"Everybody has an argument with the church," Kennedy told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Sept. 25. "It's part of being Catholic."

This rang true for everyone from the most observant Catholics, "to the more lax Catholics, to someone who's against religion altogether, like Bill Maher, ... and everyone in between," she said.

Kennedy recounts those conversations in a new book, "Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning," published in September by Crown Publishers.

Those she interviewed ranged in age from 19 to 86 and included a mix of backgrounds -- actors, historians, politicians, university professors, writers and what Kennedy called "professional Catholics," like Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington; Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister; and Father J. Bryan Hehir, a Harvard University professor who is also secretary for social services and president of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Kennedy said she was pleased to hear Pope Benedict XVI say during his U.S. visit in April that a pillar of Catholicism is "seeking the truth."

"If we seek the truth we are going to ask tough questions of the status quo," Kennedy said. "That started with Jesus, who argued with the Pharisees and the scribes and the Jewish elders."

One of the things that surprised Kennedy during the interviews -- all of which took place face to face -- was "how often people I am politically at odds with, how deeply moved I was by their sense of faith." As examples, she named conservative political commentators Peggy Noonan and Andrew Sullivan.

"I was also surprised by how often I found myself laughing," she said. Actress Susan Sarandon's story about receiving glow-in-the-dark rosary beads that she didn't know were glow-in-the-dark still gets a little giggle from Kennedy. When the beads started to glow, Sarandon, then 7, thought she was about to have a vision of Mary.

But Kennedy was most moved by faith journeys like that of actor Martin Sheen, who recalled his return to Catholic practice in 1981 in Paris. After banging on the door of a Paris church, he told the priest whose lunch he had interrupted that he wanted to make a confession after many years away from the church.

"He looked at me and something behind his eyes said, 'You came to the right place,'" Sheen recounted. "He knew that it was an important moment for me; he got it instantly. It was the most extraordinary confession. All my brokenness poured out and he said, 'Welcome back.'"

Kennedy said the Catholic Church as experienced by her daughters -- twins Cara and Mariah, 13, and Michaela, 11 -- is very different from the church she grew up with as the seventh of the 11 children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

She and her siblings "woke up each day, got down on our knees and consecrated the day" to Jesus and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; read the Bible aloud after dinner; and said the rosary together every night. It was a church of "mantillas and white gloves," incense and Latin.

But Kennedy said she wants her girls to know that "the essence of Catholicism" is "not candles, incense, and bishops and the Vatican."

Rather, she said, it is about "a loving and just God and seeking the truth, and building a community where we love one another."

END


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