Memory or History?

A day or so ago, while watching Norah O’Donnell interview Bob Schieffer about the assassination of President Kennedy fifty years ago, it dawned on me that she isn’t old enough to remember the event herself. (I checked: she was born in 1974.)  And that got me thinking about how for everyone under, say, 55 years of age, that moment is a matter of history and not of personal experience. People older than that will be able to say where they were when they heard the news, and how they learned of it, and what it was like to live through it and the events that followed immediately. 

I was a seminarian at the North American College, just three weeks away from ordination to the priesthood. We had just finished dinner and were in chapel for some brief prayer, when the Vice-rector came out into the sanctuary and told us that the President had been shot. By the time that we had walked down to the recreation-rooms, the word had arrived that he was dead.

I had played touch football that afternoon and been injured–two bones in my left hand were broken when I was blocked to the ground.  I spent the night in our infirmary where there was a radio to listen to.  The next day when I had to go into Rome to get my hand x-rayed, several Romans came up to me to express their grief and sympathy for me as an American. Kennedy had visited Rome–and the College–only four months before. (Here’s a video clip.I remember being impressed by all the security around JFK...) The Romans would have remembered that visit, and in any case they loved the first Catholic president.

So we elders can remember the awful day very well, and already the programs anticipating the fiftieth anniversary are bringing back memories. But I wonder how the younger people on this blog–the ones who can’t remember it–came to know about it, and what their own take on the anniversary events and programs will be.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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