Good Friday is different in the United States.
In most Christian-majority countries, Good Friday is a federal holiday—but not in the United States, even though some states observe it. Other Protestant countries—Great Britain, notably—have made Good Friday a national holiday. But the distinctive Protestant culture of the United States does not emphasize Holy Week or Good Friday, as is customary in Catholic cultures.
The most famous Good Friday in American history was in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. After the surrender on Palm Sunday at Appomattox, the triumphal “entry” was styled as ending in a martyr’s death, following the biblical chronology. What is remarkable, though, is that Lincoln, along with Washington high society, was at the theatre at all on Good Friday, let alone for a comedic play. That theatres in 1865 would be doing commerce on Good Friday was unimaginable in other Christian countries.
Take another, less dramatic example. The premier golf tournament in the world, the Masters, concludes on the second Sunday of April. It’s fixed, independent of liturgical season. Augusta, Georgia, has a strong Christian culture, but liturgical sensibility is weaker. So golfers are out on Good Friday when the Masters falls during Holy Week. At least the Augusta National pimento cheese sandwiches are meat-free.
That gave rise to an incongruous scene in 2004. Jim Caviezel, the devout Catholic actor, had the title role in The Passion of the Christ, which had opened on Ash Wednesday. His next film was the tale of a golfing legend who played for the love of the game. Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius was opening in late April 2004. It would be impossible not to promote the film at the Masters; Jones both developed the course and started the tournament in the 1930s.
So there was Caviezel in Augusta during Holy Week 2004, calling around to find a convenient Catholic parish. It created no little stir among the parishioners to find “Jesus” kneeling beside them on Good Friday.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of a much less edifying Good Friday in the history of American Catholic culture. In the long progression of Catholics from the cultural margins to the American mainstream, and the concomitant loss of a distinctive Catholic identity, the September 1960 address by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is thought a signal point. Not to worry about having a Catholic president, JFK told the Protestant ministers, because my Catholic faith won’t really affect my presidency. Hilaire Belloc to the voters of South Salford it was not. 
In 1961, his first year as president, JFK spent Easter at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach. Thirty years later, Ted Kennedy would do the same, with events that marked how much Catholic culture had receded among many Catholics who aspire to cultural influence and political power.
On Good Friday 1991, Ted Kennedy, his son Patrick—a Rhode Island assemblyman—and his nephew William Kennedy Smith went out late in the evening to Au Bar, a nightclub. The three would return to the Kennedy home, the two younger men with women for some casual sex. The woman with William Kennedy Smith accused him of rape, resulting in acquittal after a sensational trial, covered gavel to gavel on CNN. It was OJ before OJ. Ted Kennedy had no role in the alleged criminal events, but that the patriarch of the nation’s most famous Catholic clan would preside over such a sordid affair on Good Friday was scandalous.
Loss of Catholic identity is often measured in political compromises, from JFK to Ted Kennedy to the present president. Culture is more important than politics, though, and Good Friday 1991 in Palm Beach was a more powerful indication that Catholic culture had become enervated in the extreme.
In almost any other country in 1991, the Kennedys would not have gone cruising on Good Friday. The nightclubs would have been closed. That they were open at all is a peculiarity of American religiosity. Despite that, even a residual Catholic culture would have restrained a Catholic senator and his assemblyman son from such behavior. That it didn’t is as much of an indictment as any number of abortion votes in the Senate.
“I wish I’d gone on a long walk on the beach instead, but we went to Au Bar,” Ted Kennedy testified in his nephew’s rape trial. Better still if he had made the Stations of the Cross and called it an early night. It’s what a quondam Catholic culture used to do.
 “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.” Hilaire Belloc (b. 1870- d. 1953), excerpt from a 1906 speech he gave to voters in South Salford.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.