Bringing the Rosary to Capitol Hill

U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., is a fourth-generation Minnesotan and represents six eastern counties making nn the state's 6th District

A lifelong Catholic and father of four, Kennedy was a co-sponsor of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. He is also the co-founder of a rosary group and the St. Thomas More study group that meets on Capitol Hill.

Kennedy spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from his cell phone while traveling in Minnesota.

Tell me about your family.

I'm the third of seven children, a fourth-generation Minnesotan. My family first arrived in Minnesota in 1863.I was baptized in the Diocese of New Ulm. Up until I was elected, there were two family days of obligation — Christmas Eve and the Fourth of July. My father was always active in the Fourth of July parade.

All seven members of my family had to marry someone within a morning's drive away so they could be home for Christmas. All seven of us live in Minnesota. When we all gather, between 35-40 of us fill up one-third of the front part of church. One Christmas Sunday, the priest said, “I guess the Kennedys are here. We can start Mass.”

After the seven kids left the house, my mother put a 2,400-square-foot addition onto the house to accommodate all of us. It looks like a church hall. Christmas and family are very important.

So you grew up Catholic?

We've been Catholic since St. Patrick converted the Irish. I can count the number of weekly Masses or lunches I've missed on two hands. I eat three square meals a day and go to church every Sunday. From time to time I enjoy daily Mass as well.

While I was in graduate school, my wife and I spent a semester abroad in the Netherlands. Of all the Masses we attended there, only one was in English. You learn the Mass better when you don't understand the language. You have to try to figure out where they are in the Mass.

You spent 20 years in business. What led you into politics?

I'm the fourth-generation Kennedy to be in public service. My great-grandfather was a county commissioner. My grandfather was mayor, and my father served on the school board.

In Murdock, where I was born, everyone's Irish. Father Walsh used to come to our porch every Sunday after Mass. When John F. Kennedy was elected president it was a big deal. I was 6 when he died and 12 when Bobby Kennedy died. The first trip I took outside of Minnesota was to visit an uncle in Virginia. He took us all around Washington, D.C. So, in that mix of family and heritage, that sparked my interest in public service.

I waited until 2000 because I wanted to have the business experience and wanted to wait until my children were older so they could be involved in the process. My oldest son was my driver during my first campaign.

You've started both a rosary group and a pro-life study group on Capitol Hill. What led to their creation?

I attend a weekly Thursday morning bipartisan prayer breakfast that has occurred since the time of Eisenhower. Rep. Chris Smith [R-N.J.] and I wanted the opportunity to have Catholics gather. The rosary has always been an important force in my life and you can never have enough prayer with the issues that face us as a Congress and a country.

So, we invited members and staff to join us every Wednesday at 4 p.m. We typically get two members and seven or eight staff members. When the chaplain, Father Daniel Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Chicago, is around, he joins us. We gather in a small chapel that most people don't know about that is located off the rotunda.

The St. Thomas More study group was founded by Sen. Rick Santorum [R-Pa.] and myself. It's a gathering of bicameral, bipartisan members to meet with some of the leading Catholic thinkers. A dozen members came to share ideas with our first speaker, George Weigel. Every month or two we'll bring in someone like Father Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak or Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick [of Washington].

How do you reconcile being a person of faith in politics?

The world has gotten so secular that you find throughout your life there are those who don't think twice before making a comment that is demeaning to people of faith. I always respond in a quiet, respectful way that lets them know faith is very important to me.

You visited Iraq in August. What did you see while you were there?

I saw a lot of progress going on throughout the country. The thing most people don't realize is that only about 15% of the country is Sunni Arab. Within that region there is a lot more tension than in the rest of the country.

What made the greatest impression on me was visiting a mass grave where they recovered more than 3,000 bodies. Between 500 and 700 Iraqis came to that grave to help dig up and identify bodies.

Every soldier you talk to has a good feeling about the value of the work they are doing. Once we work our way through the terrorist challenges, there will be an opportunity for Iraq to have a diversified economy.

You were a co-sponsor on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. Why is the life issue an important one for you?

One of the things George Weigel spoke of was the Vatican statement regarding appropriate conduct of Catholic politicians. There are a whole lot of issues out there that need to be decided on. Some have more, and some have less, moral perspective. The Vatican has been clear that the issue of life is not an issue one could really have any other kind of view on. It's fundamental to our existence as a human race. It's fundamental to the Church to defend life.

I was not only a co-sponsor but also, the night before we voted on the ban, I organized a special order to talk about the issue. [A special order is an uninterrupted hour of time on the House floor after legislative business has been completed where members can organize to discuss any issue they want.] Fourteen members joined together for an hour to talk about why it was important to pass this legislation.

We painstakingly went through testimony for the bill. That testimony should be sufficient to defend this bill in court. If it is not, we will pass it again in a form that will.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.