Beliefnet
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 Massachusettsgovernor, 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 religiouswhile at school in Switzerland. I was an altar boy and prayed all thetime. I was very centered around the Mass and the church." What Biblepassages moved him most? "The letters of Paul," he said, "taught me notto feel sorry for myself."

As a teenager he attended St. Paul's, an Episcopal boarding school where he was one of only a few Catholics. Kerry took a taxi into town to attend Mass while the other boys went to the on-campus Episcopal chapel.

There, Kerry met his most important spiritual mentor: the late Rev. Richard Walker, a black Episcopal priest who went on to become Bishop of Washington.According to Brinkley, Kerry and his pal Daniel Barbiero spent eveningslistening to Walker discuss civil rights and faith. Kerry was "always quite religious," Barbiero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

When Kerry and Barbiero later arrived at Yale together, Barbiero let hisreligious life slide, while Kerry still attended Mass. "One of the firstthings he did when he got there was to find out where the CatholicChurch was," Barbiero said.

Kerry has said his religious faith propelled him to join the Navy and goto Vietnam, because he wanted to please God. Six of his closest friendsdied there, and Kerry received the Silver and Bronze stars for valor andthree Purple Hearts for minor injuries. Barbiero remembers carrying aCatholic missal into battle; Kerry carried a rosary and prayed it daily."We viewed those things as keeping the good Lord as close to us aspossible during what we knew would be a difficult time," Barbiero said.

When Kerry got home from Vietnam, he told Time magazine, he went throughwhat he calls a "period of a little bit of anger and agnosticism, butsubsequently, I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and reallycame to understand how all those terrible things fit."

Indeed, Kerry recently described his Catholicism as "an important partof getting through tough periods in my life and remains a bedrock ofvalues--of sureness, I guess--about who I am, where we all fit, what ourrole is on this planet."

As John Kerry grew older, Catholicism was changing dramatically.

Between 1962 and 1965, Catholics worldwide gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, which brought sweeping change to the church. Many Catholics at that time, particularly Americans, felt liberated by new Vatican encouragement to think for themselves and to evaluate moral decisions based on Christian conscience. This is why, for example, so many American Catholics--upwards of 90 percent--reject church teaching banning artificial birth control: to them it seems wrong, and they feel Vatican II gave them license to make that decision.
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