OLIVIA: Good fool, for my brother's death.
Clown: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
OLIVIA: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Clown: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, I.V
What happens to us when we die? As a Catholic (heck, as a believer in one God), I know there is an afterlife: Heaven or Hell, depending on how one’s life is lived. Some believe in reincarnation, that the soul comes back after death in another body, the body determined by how the soul lived in its previous life. Whatever the religion, most believe that what we do in this life affects what happens to us after we die. Our choices and our actions steer us in a specific direction, as regards our souls after our deaths. In fact, those that don’t follow a religion in the strict sense seem to be the only ones who deny any sort of afterlife.
Doing good deeds gains you eternal life, or a better reincarnation, or some sort of blessing. Doing evil deeds pushes you away from the ultimate goal of salvation. This is the given.
Let us look at two public figures who have led rather different lives, one pushing good, and the other pursuing evil. Normally it is hard to actually compare such figures, because the two subjects might not have the same background or understanding of what is good and what is evil. A man raised in Communist China might have a different understanding of good and evil compared to a man raised in Belgium. This, however, is not the case with our current comparison. The two figures not only come from the same background, same religion, etc, but are from the same family, and are in fact siblings.
I am referring to the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the late Edward Kennedy.
The Kennedys were raised Irish Catholic, went to the best schools money could buy (and they definitely had money, although the story behind the acquisition of that money is not for this post), and grew up into the world of politics, a world in which their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., preceded them. This is the same Kennedy family that produced John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver often played a part in the political careers of her brothers and her other relatives. Like her brothers, Eunice was a Democrat. She worked with Catholic charities throughout the country, and then helped found the movement for which she is best remembered: the Special Olympics. She devoted her life to helping the helpless. She was also a great supporter of the Pro-Life movement, supporting such notable organizations as Feminists for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, and Democrats for Life. She vocally reprimanded the exceedingly Pro-Choice slant of the Democratic Party, as shown in a letter in The New York Times urging then Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton to abandon the aggressive Democratic Pro-Choice platform.
She died as she lived, devoted to others, devoted to the faith.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy was also involved in politics. As a United States senator, Ted Kennedy had a hand in most of the political debates swirling since the 1960s. Unlike his sister Eunice, Ted Kennedy was a typical Democrat, not willing to argue against the party’s policy on abortion and other Pro-Life issues. If fact, he received grief from the Magisterium of the Church over his refusal to accept the Church’s teaching not only on abortion, but also on embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage. In a 1983 speech, Ted Kennedy said the following:
I am an American and a Catholic. I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?
Ted Kennedy saw the world not as a matter of right or wrong, but more of “whatever you feel like,” even with regards to something universal like truth or patriotism. This is a far cry from his sister’s position on absolute truth.
Two siblings, two very different views.
This brings us to a very interesting realization I had upon hearing of Senator Kennedy’s death. I immediately said a “Requiem Aeternam” for him, something I’ve been trying to do whenever I hear of someone’s death. Then it hit me. What if he really needs the “Requiem”? We Catholics believe that God answers prayers in ways we cannot understand, since he is outside of time. Therefore, a prayer for something of which you don’t know the result can affect what happened in the past. A “Requiem” said for someone after they died could help that person reach heaven. We don’t know the state of anyone’s soul when the person dies. What we do know is that those who have led lives of sin need the prayers just as much, maybe even more, than the prayers of those who lived a good life.
Let’s connect the dots. We cannot be sure that either Kennedy is in heaven (neither, obviously, have been declared saints). We cannot say for certain that either one is in Hell (we just can’t know that. Sorry Dante). What we can do is pray.
This uncertainty is reflected in the above quote from Twelfth Night. Why pray for a soul that is in heaven? If one prays for a deceased loved one, it is a given that the soul needs the prayer, i.e., is in heaven. We therefore pray for those who are struggling in Purgatory, for they need our prayers. For all we know, our prayers helped them land there, rather than in Hell.
Pray for all deceased Kennedys, and all who have died, especially those who need our prayers the most.