“He who never sought to be internationally known is the most beloved of all in the farflung missions of the Church in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America.” — Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, speaking about Richard Cardinal Cushing [source]
EARS AGO, I asked a priest who had been ordained in the 1950s, “What was the sloppiest Liturgy you can remember?” He answered without hesitation: “The Funeral Mass of John F. Kennedy. It was a Low Mass said by Cardinal Cushing. His Latin was atrocious.” I think that was the first time I ever heard the name of Richard Cardinal Cushing.
Archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970, Cushing was not an easy man to understand. For example, he seems to have been interested in missionary work and devoted to Pope Pius XII, but mishandled the subject of Mrs. Kennedy’s 1968 marriage to Aristotle Onassis. At a later time, I’d like to write more about him. A priest told me that Cardinal Cushing famously left the Second Vatican Council, claiming, “I cannot understand Latin.” When I asked a bishop about this in 2007, he replied:
That is true. The Cardinal left the Council in the First Session because he could not speak Latin; simultaneous translation was available but he could not speak it.
I haven’t been able to verify the exact quote by Cardinal Cushing. However, other comments I found support this story. For instance:
Even during the Second Vatican Council, there were communication problems among the cardinals: Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston argued that he and others were being left out of the Latin proceedings, which, he said, were “all Greek to me.” At his request, a simultaneous translation system was put in place. [source]
See also here, wherein Cardinal Cushing boasts about his lack of knowledge of Latin (and even appears to take the Name of the Lord in vain). Still confused, I approached another priest, who received a classics degree in the 1950s. He said, “Oh, don’t be surprised, Jeff. In those days, many priests used to pretend they didn’t know Latin. It was all the rage.” 1 I wonder if Cardinal Cushing was being honest. According to his biography, he “graduated from high school in 1913, receiving honors for Latin and Greek.” In any event, it’s a bit hard to believe a man could become a Cardinal in those days and not know Latin. Yet another priest told me (in 2007): “I should not be the least surprised that Cardinal Cushing knew very little. He did intelligently, I think, ask at Vatican II what the vernacular would be in his diocese with all the Portuguese, etc.”
WHAT DID Cardinal Cushing’s Latin sound like? It wasn’t pretty. Here’s an excerpt from the 1963 Funeral of John F. Kennedy, which was a (Requiem) Low Mass.
I believe Jacqueline Kennedy was the one who requested a Low Mass, but accounts vary. Perhaps she feared a High Mass becoming a “concert.” The Low Mass did have music, though. How can a Low Mass have music? Well, we’ve discussed that many times on this blog (for instance, here). You can see more excerpts from the funeral here.
SOME PEOPLE WILL HEAR Cardinal Cushing’s horrible Latin pronunciation and exclaim:
“See! That proves it! Priests used to mumble and mutter through the Mass before the Second Vatican Council.”
However, that simply is not the case. For example, listen to Bishop René H. Gracida, a World War II veteran just like John F. Kennedy:
His Excellency’s pronunciation is clear, careful, and beautiful.
IN 2010, I ASKED a bunch more priests about Cardinal Cushing. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jeff must have been obsessed with Cardinal Cushing!” Let me explain. Fr. John A. O’Brien is a Jesuit to whom I’ve been highly devoted. He was (among other things) the biographer of the holy Jesuit Martyrs of North America (and his book about them is amazing!). But I was puzzled by this message in the front of one of Fr. O’Brien’s books:
“To Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston,
Apostle of Charity, Zealous Shepherd of Souls, And inspiring leader of Christ’s Church,
This book is dedicated with the author’s esteem and affection”
Here’s one of the more interesting responses I got, from a priest who taught Latin since the 1950s:
Cardinal Cushing, to my mind, was not an evil man. He was a politician but not a theologian, and, to my knowledge, never taught anything against the magisterium or did any major crime. He was not in my style or approach, but was well loved by many people and very charitable with his own and the Church’s money.
And here’s another:
Jeff, The key to understand the apparent contradiction of Father O’Brien’s being “very holy” and “very smart” (your words) and yet still dedicating his book to Cardinal Cushing, is to be found in the last word of his dedication: “AFFECTION.” My guess is that the Cardinal played a very personal role in Father O’Brien’s journey to ordination as a priest. Father O’Brien’s sense of gratitude was probably so strong that it blinded him to the historical reality of the disaster that was the Cardinal’s reign as Archbishop of Boston. I knew the Cardinal. He was a ‘rough cut gem’ who had many endearing qualities. However, he lacked the intelligence to be a Cardinal Archbishop of a major See. He did not attend many sessions of Vatican II because he did not understand Latin which was the spoken language at the Council.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 It’s reminiscent of some modern-day critics of MR3 who say, “I cannot understand these prayers: I’m too dumb.” This argument confuses me, because I understand MR3 perfectly; yet I’m no scholar, and my high school teachers can verify this fact!