Fr. Robert Kennedy ’50
By Karen Hart
Robert T. Kennedy ’50 is a man of many titles: priest,
lawyer, professor, speaker, advisor, uncle and friend.
Currently a professor of canon law and the O’Brien-O’Connor Scholar
at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Fr. Kennedy is a top advisor and
counselor to many church officials in the United States. He is the counsel to
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Canonical Affairs. He
has been a visiting professor at New York University Law School, Princeton and
Maryknoll universities. And he has served on the Papal Commission of Pope Paul
VI for administrative law in the church, among other notable committees.
Though most of his life has been spent as a priest and as an educator, when he
was a young man, Fr. Kennedy had much different aspirations.
Known in those days as “Bob,” he came to Holy Cross in 1946 to attend
his older brother’s alma mater. Fr. Kennedy’s experience at the school
was quite different from his brother’s as well as from that of most students
who have attended Holy Cross. His was the first year returning veterans from
World War II enrolled, and at least half his class consisted of men much older
than he, and seasoned by their experiences in the war.
“We were kids—children, really,” Fr. Kennedy says. “We
were probably the most disparate group in terms of age, experience and levels
of maturity. We were probably the most diverse class ever to go to college, but
when we left we were solidly united. It was amazing how those older guys took
us younger guys in.”
Fr. Kennedy studied English at Holy Cross and hoped one day to teach at the College;
but, practical by nature, he thought that if he married and had children he would
need a higher paying job—he entered Harvard Law School.
“I loved English and still do,” Fr. Kennedy says. “I really
wasn’t certain what I wanted to do, but I knew that a law school education—especially
if I could get into Harvard—along with my Holy Cross education, would stand
me in good stead no matter what I did. And I fell in love with law at law school.”
During this time Fr. Kennedy occasionally thought about entering the priesthood
as he forged ahead with his career, graduating from Harvard in 1953. His first
job was a judicial clerkship for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington,
D.C.—the second highest court in the United States, according to Fr. Kennedy.
“It’s a wonderful education for a graduate of law school,” he
says. “I learned a lot.”
Fr. Kennedy’s education, however, was far from complete. Thoughts of entering
the seminary soon returned, and he eventually entered St. Joseph’s Dunwoodie
Seminary in New York. Fr. Kennedy was ordained in St. Patrick’s Cathedral
and shortly thereafter left for Rome to study at the Lateran University; he received
a Ph.D in canon and civil law in 1962.
“Certainly, I was on the law track,” Fr. Kennedy says, reflecting
on his life’s path. “Part of it, I guess, was the idea that God had
given me so many things that maybe I should give something back. I thought the
life of a parish priest would be something I would enjoy—as things turned
out my priesthood became very different. And I can see God’s hand working
in it all. I don’t know whether God was letting my desire remain mild until
he finished educating me, but that’s the way it worked out.”
His life had come together, Fr. Kennedy says, after he finished his religious
education, and his two worlds of church and civil law melded. From 1962 to 1965
he served as the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York and then was
a member of the St. Joseph faculty for nine years. He was also the president
of the Canon Law Society of America during that time. After coming to Catholic
University in 1974, Fr. Kennedy’s life as a consultant and educator hit
full stride; he continues to serve the needs of students, hospital administrators,
church and college officials and others who turn to him for advice and counsel.
Kennedy, who is perhaps best known for his writings and opinions on the individual
rights of people in the church, is the author of the rights program approved
by the American bishops and endorsed by Rome for use in the United States. He
is also recognized for his work in cooperative law between the church and state
in relation to church property, finances and decisions.
“In a sense my life has come together because I’ve been able to serve,
I hope, the church in an unusual way as a servant of two legal systems,” Fr.
Kennedy says. “There are two sovereigns in this country—the laws
of church and the laws of nation. Neither legal system is perfect, but each can
learn from the other. I was gifted to learn something about each and to see that
the two of them must cooperate and accommodate the legitimate interests of the
In addition to the fulfillment of his calling to God and his commitment to the
law, Fr. Kennedy says there is not much more important in his life than his dedication
to Holy Cross.
“There is no piece of earth that means more to me than Holy Cross,” Fr.
He has been the featured speaker at many of his class reunions, including the
25th, 40th and last year’s 50th golden jubilee reunion. “I think
I can say I was honored—no invitation to speak meant more to me than to
speak at the reunions,” Fr. Kennedy says. “It was a gift. I’ve
been honored to receive so many invitations to address so many of the important
people of the world, but nothing has meant more than the opportunity to give
back to my class for their friendship and inspiration in so many ways throughout
the past 50 years. I’ve watched them become remarkable people, and they
have let me become part of their families.”
Fr. Kennedy is the last living member of his immediate family, though he has
an extended family of Holy Cross friends as well as nephews, nieces and a grand-nephew
who is a Holy Cross graduate of 1994. Fr. Kennedy has officiated at many of the
marriages of his classmates and at the baptisms and marriages of their children,
including the son of a friend who was named after him. After that wedding, the
couple arranged for a tree planting at Holy Cross in honor of the priest’s
Fr. Kennedy has also received recognition from several national Catholic organizations:
the Canon Law Society of America selected him as one of its first honorees, for
his work in church law as a means of serving God’s people; last year he
received the “Prestigious Award” from the National Association of
Catholic Chaplains for his work with professional chaplains in the Catholic Church.
Fr. Kennedy now lives in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.