Not a Prodigal Son

Kerry has a different language, a different connection to ritual, and a different relationship to Jesus than that of Bush.

BY: Deborah Caldwell

 

John Kerry was never a Prodigal Son. His faith journey contains no leave-taking and triumphant return, no revival, no conversion on the road to Damascus. Unlike President Bush--a Protestant who experienced a profound conversion at age 40 under the Rev. Billy Graham's tutelage--Kerry has been a steady, churchgoing Catholic literally since the day he was born.

For Americans who have grown accustomed in the last four years to a certain kind of spiritual biography, Kerry's will seem starkly different. He uses different language, has a different connection to ritual, and most likely a different relationship with Jesus. His faith life illustrates not only the stylistic and theological differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but also the differences between American Catholicism of an earlier generation and that which has grown in the last few decades.

According to those who know him, Kerry is a religious man. On the campaign trail, he is said to carry a rosary, a prayer book, and a St. Christopher medal (the patron saint of travelers). He attends Mass regularly--complaining when his campaign staff doesn't leave time in his schedule for it.

His father, Richard, was a Catholic, and his mother, Rosemary, was an Episcopalian who raised the four children as Catholics. Kerry was baptized and reared in the pre-Second Vatican Council Catholic Church, with its strict rules and Latin Mass. When he was 10 and the family was living in Berlin, his parents sent John to a boarding school in Switzerland. The young boy would sit alone in the chapel's back pew, staring at the altar or lighting a candle, according to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, author of

Tour of Duty

.

Although Kerry is descended from John Winthrop, the first Massachusetts governor, and the prominent Massachusetts Forbes family, his father was in the foreign service and was, essentially, a government worker--not a member of the upper class. John Kerry's wealthy and childless Aunt Clara paid for his private schooling. So although Kerry rubbed shoulders with rich people throughout his childhood, he was a lonely, not-quite-as-wealthy outsider--a little too serious, eager, and dorky to fit in to the casual, sarcastic culture of upper-class New England.

"I thought of being a priest," Kerry recalled. "I was very religious while at school in Switzerland. I was an altar boy and prayed all the time. I was very centered around the Mass and the church." What Bible passages moved him most? "The letters of Paul," he said, "taught me not to feel sorry for myself."

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