Chris Kennedy: ‘I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work’

Chris Kennedy| Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file photo

Chris Kennedy, Democrat running for governor, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy, embraces “social justice” Catholicism, admires “hero priests,” describes Illinois’ state budget crisis in moral terms.

Part of country’s best-known Irish-Catholic clan, rooted in Massachusetts, but “I’ve been here for about 31 years” after meeting his future wife at Boston College and following her “back to her hometown . . . like a little puppy.”

With four kids, they “have a great life in a state that we love.”

Wife’s parents live nearby, and they “help . . . reinforce” the “little stuff” with his children — firm handshakes, looking people in the eye — as well as “bigger lessons” like, “It’s better to win than to lose, but it’s better to lose than to cheat.

“It’s great having another set of adults share those values with our children while we’re raising them. And I’d like to be able to do that with my own grandkids . . . Unfortunately, the kids that are our children’s age” — college-age or older — “they’re leaving the state” for better opportunities and “optimism.”

Wants to “reset the direction of the state” and foster an “environment” where talent is retained and attracted.

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Chris Kennedy marching June 25 in the 48th Annual Chicago Pride Parade. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

One of 11 kids, Kennedy, 54, “grew up in the changing world of Vatican II,” a council in the 1960s that modernized the Catholic Church.

“There was a time of great optimism. We grew up with . . . priests who were part of our family . . . hero priests . . . champions of Catholic social justice.”

Among them: Robert Drinan, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who ended up in Congress, and Geno Baroni, who was active in civil rights and helping the poor.

“That’s the Catholic Church that we grew up with and we continue to want to be a part of.”

It was “cataclysmic” when two influential American cardinals tried to dampen that type of church activism, and Kennedy felt “some alienation” as a result.

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With his father and his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, both murdered while in politics, “I think the fear’s probably present in everybody’s heart about what I’m doing.”

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Mother instilled “in us a great sense of faith. We . . . said prayers every morning . . . prayers together as a family every evening after dinner . . . Our dinner was ended every night with one of us reading a story from the children’s Bible.”

Went to mass Sundays, but “the regular confession piece wasn’t such a big part of our lives and, frankly, for some of my brothers and sisters, that might have overwhelmed the time constraints of the parish priest.”

Kennedy’s high school and college were run by priests from the Jesuit order.

“I don’t believe in a God that’s separate and apart but one that’s present to us in that Holy Spirit. I feel like I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in my mother’s faith and in the changes that have occurred in my lifetime around social justice issues.”

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“I think that notion of a ‘cafeteria Catholic’ is demeaning and . . . disrespectful to the different traditions that I believe are a legitimate part” of the church. “Anyone who tries to push” that label “on me, I’ll push back in a robust way.”

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Was faith a factor in running for office?

“I think faith very much drives my considerations.”

Sees the state’s budget crisis and its impact on social service agencies and the vulnerable people they try to help through a moral lens.

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Ethel Kennedy and her husband, the then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, beam with pride as they leave St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in 1963 with baby Chris for their Hyannis Port summer home. | File photo

Did his father’s death have an impact on his faith?

“I don’t know that that event was as determinant for me as the reaction to it I saw,” particularly in his mom, Ethel Kennedy, and grandmother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Through their faith, “they were able to survive a set of circumstances that would have probably overwhelmed any other human being.

His mother “didn’t withdraw, she wasn’t crushed by that event. And, in many ways, her faith allowed her to proceed, and I think that lesson was the powerful lesson.”

He prays “regularly,” says it’s “more of a dialogue.”

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To him, God looks like “other people.”

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In Chicago, there’s sort of a “brand” of Catholicism here “that’s very unique,” influenced by local seminary leaders decades ago who “encouraged” priests “to be active” in social issues.

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Should women be allowed to be Catholic priests?

Certainly, any one of my four sisters is as capable of giving a sermon that’s moving and powerful as perhaps any priest that I’ve heard, and since they preach at me regularly, I can say that.”

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He likes St. Paul’s writings about embracing special “gifts” from God in service to the community.

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Doesn’t like politicians here and elsewhere “co-opting” religious leaders, sometimes appointing them to government jobs with the intent of diluting criticism – or encouraging praise – from the pulpit.

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

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Previously from Chicago News