ARLINGTON –– In 1963, Dunganstown in County Wexford, Ireland, welcomed one of its own back to his ancestral birthplace.
June 27 marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy's historic visit to Ireland. Kennedy was the first Catholic to become U.S. president.
On June 18, a commemorative ceremony honoring the president's Irish heritage was held at Arlington National Cemetery. Fire from Kennedy's graveside eternal flame was used to light a torch that was being transported to the quayside Kennedy Monument in the town of New Ross in Wexford. In a June 22 ceremony, it was also to be used to light a flame in memory of all Irish emigrants.
Kevin Conmy of the Embassy of Ireland presided over the ceremony. He said the flame will be transported using Olympic technology and be delivered by an escort detail from the Irish Naval Service.
"In Ireland, we like our commemorations," Conmy said in an interview with Catholic News Service. "Commemorations are very important in terms of passing on our culture and our experiences and the visit from President Kennedy in 1963 was a historic event and so that's why we're celebrating it."
Charge d'affaires Conmy said it is important for such a historic visit to transcend generations. "The election of President Kennedy, that third generation Irish elected to the highest office in the world, was a real inspiration to Irish people everywhere, but particularly in Ireland."
Colors of both Ireland and the U.S. were presented by respective members of the military, including a bagpipe performance by Irish Defense Forces Cpl. Anthony Kelly of a hymn that was also performed at the late president's state funeral.
Members of the Kennedy and Shriver families were recognized at the ceremony. Representatives of the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics also were present, including about 10 Special Olympics athletes greeted by the movement's CEO, Timothy Shriver. His late mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics in 1968.
Emmy-nominated singer and Wexford man Michael Londra performed a rendition of Ireland's national anthem "Amhran na bhFiann" ("The Soldiers' Song") in Gaelic. Londra, according to his website, has played the role of the late Bobby Kennedy in a performance of "JFK: A Musical Drama," at the invitation of U.S. director and choreographer Larry Fuller.
Award-winning Irish tenor Anthony Kearns performed "The Star Spangled Banner." Kearns opened the 2013 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington and among the many other events where he has performed was a bipartisan Friends of Ireland lunch in March, invited by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Kearns told CNS following the Arlington ceremony that he tries to stay outside the political fray.
"Music transcends all boundaries, I'm in the middle of it all," said Kearns, who also hails from County Wexford. "It's a great opportunity to be here and I lend my voice to various occasions."
Freshman U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., spoke at the Arlington memorial, applauding Ireland's unwavering spirit. He is the grandson of Bobby Kennedy, who was a U.S. senator and served as attorney general in his brother's administration.
In a reflection related to his great uncle's words to a joint session of the Irish Parliament during his presidential visit, Congressman Kennedy said he thought of the president's journey as the story of a young man returning home.
"Fifty years ago, speaking in Cork, President Kennedy said most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop, but Ireland has only one export, and that is its people," Congressman Kennedy said. "While this country imports raw material and finished goods to feed our economy, we welcome the stranger to strengthen our spirit. For almost a full generation, they were mostly Irish.
"Now they come from every corner of the world. We light this torch today as a symbol of the bond that was forged when a young American president found his way home."
A 1963 story on President Kennedy's visit by the National Catholic Welfare Conference News Service, the predecessor to CNS, reported that he said no larger nation ever did more than Ireland to keep Christianity and Western culture alive in the darkest centuries.
Minister Paul Kehoe, the Irish government's chief whip, laid a wreath of assorted flowers in the colors of the Irish flag on the Kennedy family grave.
A Catholic priest closed the ceremony with a prayer.
"All throughout Scripture, the flame represents presence of the spirit of God," said Fr. Timothy Hubbs, a lieutenant colonel and senior Army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery.
"From the fire of the burning bush, God commissioned Moses to leave his home and seek the freedom of his people. By a pillar of a flame, the angel of the Lord led the Israelites through the desert to the promise land. By tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit indwelled the apostles and empowered them to go into the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation."
The same Spirit "enlivens our hearts" and "leads us out of darkness and into the light of Christ," he continued. "Therefore, as we call down God's blessing, on this torch and these lamps and all that the flame represents, our foremost concern must be that our Christian lives bare out the kind of witness we are called to live as the people of Christ in this generation."
Fr. Hubbs prayed that the "love and affection of the angels and saints" would be with those taking the torch lit with the flame from the Kennedy grave in Arlington "to kindle a memorial in the Irish homeland."
"May God shield you on every step, may he aid you in every path," he prayed, "and may he keep you safe on every slope, on ever hill, and on every plane, in the air or on sea, until you are home again. Amen."