Published in Volume 73, Issue 1 of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology


The following is excerpted from Senator Tim Kaine’s spiritual profile, part of a larger project in collaboration with Senator Chris Coons--Profiles in SpiritÓ—providing glimpses of the spiritual lives of selected political leaders. In an effort to push back against the relentless negativity that poisons national politics, these profiles focus on the humanity and spiritual depth of individuals who hold public office by tracing spiritual themes threaded through their lives. 


Senator Tim Kaine has a recurring dream, maybe a few times a year. He is walking into a death chamber. It is dark and the outlines are hazy, but one thing is clear: a man is about to be executed and Kaine can do nothing to stop it. The out-of-focus dream of the death chamber differs from the harshly fluorescent, antiseptically clean room at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia that Kaine entered December 12, 1996, holding the hand of his client Lem Tuggle as this condemned man was strapped to a table, his last appeals having been exhausted. “Merry Christmas” were Lem Tuggle’s last words as he was executed on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As a Richmond civil rights lawyer, Tim Kaine did everything in his power to stop executions. As Governor of Virginia, he had that power, but he rarely used it. And it haunts him still.  

It was the Jesuits who first taught Kaine to keep his eyes open to the inherent dignity of every person, especially those who believe they have nothing good to give. The eleven executions he oversaw in his four years as Virginia’s Governor are the unfinished and unsettled business of Kaine’s life. Today, rather than push them aside in his mind, he reflects on them, wonders what these deaths will mean for him on judgment day. The executions deeply trouble him and motivate him, even goad him. They are a chilling reminder of the wide gap between how he believes things should be, and how they actually are. They are, in some ways, the reason he remains in politics.[1]

I.             FORMATION  

It is a Monday morning in April, 1973 at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City and excitement fills the air at this all-boys Jesuit school. Time Magazine’s lead story features mystic and influential leader of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., whose broad smile and expressive eyes light up the cover against the eye-catching orange and red backdrop of the publication.[2]Fr. Arrupe is at this time the face of the Jesuit order’s commitment to and compassion for the poor. Johann Baptist Metz, a German theologian, defines “mysticism of open eyes” as a spirituality that looks straight at suffering, “pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it.”[3]Arrupe is a perfect example of it.  He does not avert his eyes from hard truths. His penetrating gaze suggests to the Rockhurst boys that to be spiritual is to pay close attention. Arrupe seems willing to pay attention, to look squarely at reality and to imagine how it might be different. Arrupe’s open eyes get some Jesuits in trouble with the Vatican but get the high school boys interested.

Kaine is paying attention. At home, his parents Al and Kathy manage to convey the importance of fidelity to faith and family, integrity, decency and hard work through the consistency of their actions and what they refrain from saying. In the spirit of the admonition associated with St. Francis of Assisi—Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary—Al and Kathy make very few pronouncements to “the boys,” Timothy Michael, Stephen Francis and Patrick James. Even an expression his father Al is fond of saying, listening is a lost art, is communicated primarily and somewhat unconsciously through his example of thoughtful reflection. But at Rockhurst High Schoolthe largely unspoken, implicit values Kaine’s parents have inculcated become explicit, articulated, dissected and debated in an environment where the Jesuit idea is to link rigorous intellectual development with personal, moral and religious formation. 

Kaine –a facile thinker and avid reader—is ready for the challenge. On day one of freshman year when he and his classmates are asked by their Jesuit English teacher to write down every novel that they have ever read, some of his classmates hastily dash off a short list of four or five books. Kaine relishes this homework assignment, turning in page after page that includes multiple works by Leo Tolstoy, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck and many others he has stumbled upon in the library or in his home. Now in class at Rockhurst he is introduced to philosophers such as Plato and theologians such as Soren Kierkegaard.  It is thrilling, and revelatory. Kaine is particularly struck by Plato’s description of the truth as an unseen light creating shadows on the walls of a cave. What we see, Plato suggests, is only part of the picture. There is a truth, a larger spiritual whole, which is very real even if not clearly seen. Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ sparks something similar for Kaine, a hint that life’s meaning is found in reaching for and reflecting upon a larger and deeper unseen reality. The intellectual rigor of this assigned reading quickens Kaine’s mind. But there is something also about the intensity in Arrupe’s open eyes and the smile on his face on the Time cover that begins to stir Kaine’s heart as well. 

Most of Kaine’s instructors at Rockhurst are Jesuits priests, brothers or scholastics studying for the priesthood. It is hard to ignore the Ignatian spirit of the place. One Rockhurst instructor is a young Jesuit named Jim White, a potter who teaches art. White is direct; he asks pointed questions. On a weekend retreat Kaine falls silent when White asks which person of the Trinity they have the most intimate relationship with. The question is surprising, the suggestion of a personal relationship a revelation to Kaine. For all the emphasis on the intellectual rigor and the social justice of the Catholic tradition, it takes this question for Kaine to grasp how personal these subjects – and faith as a whole – can be. It will not be the last time that a Jesuit stops him in his tracks and prompts him to reflect deeply on the implications of his faith. 

The stirring in his heart becomes more of a churning in the spring of 1974--during Kaine’s sophomore year of high school--when chosen to be one of two students to travel to the Jesuit mission in Honduras, run by the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, to deliver Rockhurst’s annual fundraising proceeds. Kaine does not know what to expect. He knows a little Spanish; most of his friends tend to see Spanish as the “easy” language and take other languages they consider more academically challenging, like Latin or French. But Kaine, not one to avoid challenges, does not bow easily to peer influences. He takes Spanish because it is more practical, and it turns out he is right. 

It is Holy Week, the Rockhurst spring break. Kaine and a Rockhurst junior, Steve Reintjes, fly alone into the international airport outside of San Pedro Sula, in the northwest corner of Honduras in the Sula Valley, and into a completely different world. Kaine is awed by the beauty of the country, but the poverty comes as a jolt.[4]A twenty-five year-old Honduran-born Jesuit scholastic, Mauricio Gaborit, picks the two boys up and brings them to the converted United Fruit Company compound in El Progreso, where the Jesuit mission is housed. Most of the Jesuits at the mission are not Hondurans, but Missourians. These talented priests and brothers have left everyone and everything they know in the United States to move permanently to Honduras to serve the poor. The Rockhurst Jesuits are cool—the way they gather crowds of students on the way home from football games and parties into the school chapel on Saturday nights to celebrate midnight Mass—but these Jesuits in Honduras, like Brother Jim O’Leary, are like characters out of a movie. Jaime O’Leary, as everyone calls him, is a native of St. Louis rarely seen without his baseball cap. He wears his heart on his sleeve, a down-to-earth practical man of God with a sense of humor and a love of the St. Louis Cardinals. His Spanish is atrocious but his laugh infectious, his commitment to the Honduran people contagious. When Kaine returns home, he cannot quite forget the Jesuits like O’Leary who are so dedicated to serving in a situation of great poverty. Tucked into the recesses of his mind, even as the plane lifts off to take him back home, is the notion of returning someday as a volunteer.


The Honduras idea moves from the back of his mind to the very front five years later, in the late summer of 1979, when Kaine arrives at Harvard Law School at twenty-one years of age. It is his first time ever on the Harvard campus. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was his motivation to go to law school. He only knows two real lawyers, an uncle and a friend of his parents, but he does not know what they do. He also does not really know what he wants to do as a lawyer. What a relief that there to meet him in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a familiar face, Fr. Mauricio—as the young seminarian Kaine met in Honduras is now called, having been ordained a Jesuit priest the previous year. The two maintained a correspondence as Kaine studied economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia (Mizzou) and Mauricio completed theological training at Boston College. With his U-Haul packed and ready for a move to the University of Michigan to begin doctoral studies, Mauricio has just enough time to help a nervous and excited Kaine move the few things he brought from home—mostly books--into Harvard graduate student housing. Kaine hands Mauricio his copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a parting gift, and with that, Mauricio is gone and Kaine is alone. 

Kaine finds it inspiring, but mostly unsettling, to meet so many older classmates who having taken time off after college for impressive and interesting opportunities before starting law school. These classmates seem to have a far better idea of what they are seeking than Kaine. Within a week of starting law school, many are talking about getting jobs after graduation at New York law firms. Kaine is not so sure. At Mizzou, Kaine had been a Coro Fellow, a program that teaches leadership skills in public affairs, but he does not feel nearly as well-equipped as his classmates to become a leader in public affairs—or in any field. During a weekend visit to Mauricio in Ann Arbor, Kaine and the young Jesuit sit on the floor of the Jesuit residence late into the night as Kaine confides his uncertainties. Honduras is on his mind; he wonders what Mauricio thinks of his returning. The priest listens and bites his tongue. Mauricio had chosen to leave Honduras when he did out of fear for his life. One of Mauricio’s colleagues in a project to provide food and shelter to Salvadoran refugees near the border of El Salvador and Honduras had disappeared; her mutilated corpse found floating in a river. Kaine’s Jesuit friend stays quiet during this late-night conversation about the risks, still too traumatized himself to speak of it and trusting Kaine to come to his own conclusions. 

Once Kaine’s decision is made, he writes to his measured, non-directive parents, Al and Kathy. He does not need their permission, but hopes for their blessing. He explains why he is going: to become more fluent in Spanish, to read economic and philosophical works, to create opportunities to write, to sift through the build-up of ideas turning over in his mind.  He wants to make a positive contribution to the Honduran community, but he also shares a deeper motivation with his parents:

There is something special about wanting to be in another country. I honestly feel that the chance to work in Honduras will enable me to appreciate my own life in America to a greater degree. I believe I will become more conscious of the breaks and advantages I have had as a result of my upbringing. Because I am committed to doing whatever I can to see that those “advantages” are made more available to more people, any increase in sensitivity will be helpful. At the same time, I’m not full of unrealistic expectations of what I can learn in Honduras. It will be educational, yet I have to be humble in approaching it.[5]


Kaine is deferential, considerate of his parents’ possible reactions to his plan. They might worry he will not return to law school; they might worry for his safety; “I imagine it sounds like a drastic plan—I feel that even as I set the words down on paper, yet there (are) many things about going there which are attracting me, aspects which outweigh, in my eyes, the objections to it.”[6]But he wants his parents to understand what attracts him to the idea:  

I love you both very much and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the good things you taught me as I grew up. I see this opportunity as a chance to put some of my upbringing to a good use and learn things that will help me during many years to come.[7]


Al and Kathy Kaine are indeed shocked and concerned for Kaine’s safety. They have good reason. Just a few years earlier, all forty-seven Jesuits in neighboring El Salvador had been threatened with death if they did not leave the country. Posters read, “Be a patriot.  Kill a priest.”[8]But that kindly man who graced the Time magazine cover in 1972, Pedro Arrupe, had announced that the Jesuits on the front lines of poverty would stay. “They may end up as martyrs,” Arrupe says, “but my priests are not going to leave, because they are with the people.”[9]Two weeks after Kaine writes his parents, Archbishop Oscar Romero, born ten miles outside Honduras, is gunned down in San Salvador while at the altar lifting up the communion bread as he says Mass. Later that year, four Catholic missionary sisters from the United States working in El Salvador will be raped and killed. Despite the ongoing violence in the region and the danger to religious missionaries, Al and Kathy trust their oldest son’s maturity and judgment. In a sign of respect for him they tell him that if he believes he must follow this plan to help formulate his path forward, they will not stand in his way.[10]

            In mid-September 1980, five and a half years after his high school visit, Kaine once again lands at the San Pedro Sula airport. This time he is alone and this time it is Brother Jim O’Leary who meets him and takes him to the Jesuit residence in El Progreso. O’Leary is just as Kaine remembers: a big, burly man who, though his Spanish is still awful, is one of the best communicators he ever meets. The adventure begins immediately. The drive from the airport puts them in the path of a flooded river covering the highway with water, making the fifteen-mile trip from the airport a slow journey in O’Leary’s big truck. Kaine soon learns that transportation troubles are part of everyday life in Honduras. 

Kaine will be helping in some capacity with Escuela Esteban Moye, a vocational school recently opened and run by the Jesuits. But O’Leary wants him first to settle in and adjust to a country where, like Kansas City, the temperature regularly climbs to 100 degrees with high humidity. Unlike Kansas City there is no air conditioning or fan for cooling off and the mosquitoes are much more prolific. He shares a room at the Jesuit residence, the Fragua in El Progreso, with twenty-five year-old seminarian Ramiro Martinez. Ramiro is from Guayamitas, a small Honduran village about fifteen miles from El Progreso. Their backgrounds could not be more different. Ramiro’s family is extremely poor; his father an alcoholic out of work for five or six years. He himself was crippled at birth and walked with crutches until the Jesuits help him obtain corrective surgery in his early twenties. Ramiro speaks only Spanish; Tim Kaine’s Spanish is barely proficient. Yet they become fast friends. Kaine admires the young seminarian’s commitment and idealism. After Ramiro leaves Honduras later that year to continue studying for the priesthood in Panama, Kaine wonders, “Where can I even begin to express my thanks for having known someone like that?”[11]

Kaine spends his first few weeks working on his Spanish, adapting to the rhythm of the Jesuit community, and learning more about the Escuela Esteban Moye. He spends time with Ramiro and his fellow night students at the University in San Pedro Sula, reads newspapers and books in Spanish, works on translating some of the priests’ writings from Spanish to English, and spends time at the vocational school. His confidence ebbs, however; the language barrier is more difficult than he expected. He misses family, friends, and hallmarks of his American life, like the Kansas City Royals, who in 1980 play against the Philadelphia Phillies, and lose, in the World Series. He repeatedly shares with his parents his concern that he is not doing enough to help the Jesuit mission: 

About my Spanish . . . my initial thoughts after 5 days in Tela were too optimistic. I was speaking Spanish there with an American and a Spaniard who is used to talking to beginners. It’s a different story here in town. The students are great, very patient, as are the priests here. Even    though many of the Jesuits are American, it’s all Spanish here. At meals, all conversation is in Espanol, with 4 Spanish priests here to lead the way. I’m learning a lot, but it’s pretty hard. Of    course these first weeks have been very emotionally trying. I’ve thought a lot about home and school and my present inability (due to the language) to contribute much in return for the food & shelter. All these feelings stay inside because I can’t talk them out in Spanish (I have been writing a lot of letters, which helps). Plus, my lack of facility with the language means I have to operate at a very basic level—no precision, no real descriptive ability, and (worst of all) I can’t joke around with anyone! Not being able to let my humorous side through is a real tough row to hoe.[12]


If the Spanish language is difficult in his first weeks in Honduras, the deeper challenge for Kaine is his perplexity over his own spiritual path in light of these dedicated Jesuits. At the end of high school, five of his Rockhurst classmates had been actively exploring joining the Jesuits.[13]The Jesuits would have been delighted had Tim Kaine been one of them, but joining the Jesuits is not on his mind then, nor at any other time. Some of the church doctrines as he understands them—such as who will or will not be saved—trouble him. “Being among the Jesuits here,” he confesses to his parents, “in the midst of a culture where religious faith is such an outward part of everyday life, has made me think a lot about my own religious convictions. Because they are quite different from those of this community, I sometimes feel even more out of place.”[14] He suspects this separation is a self-imposed intellectual barrier, and he tries to pay attention instead to the lived spirituality of these Jesuits. Kaine sees plainly that practical acts of serving the poor are marks of this spirituality—he has learned about the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church in religion classes at Rockhurst--but also absorbs a less discernable but no less fundamental feature of Ignatian spirituality: looking for God in all things. There is a tiny room with a desk next to Kaine and Ramiro’s shared room at the Jesuit residence that Kaine retreats to in the evenings for writing, mostly letters, poems, and a steady stream of ideas, and for reading, a lot of poetry and some economics. Kaine naturally adopts the Jesuit practice of reflection, looking for signs of God’s presence even when a bit discouraged in his first few weeks. “If nothing else,” he writes, “the peaceful feeling of riding a bicycle back to the Fragua at 5:30, after a hard-fought game of futbol at the school, with a view of the mountains and a sunset behind them to guide me, has been worth the trip.”[15]

Escuela Esteban Moye tries to fill a gap for the many young and impoverished people of Honduras who make up over half the population and whose compulsory primary education extends only to the sixth grade, leaving them with few skills. The courses in carpentry and metal work the school offers meet a need, but the school struggles with low enrollment, high absenteeism, staffing difficulties, and lack of structure. Kaine reflects on the gap between what the school could be, and what it is. He is eager to make an immediate contribution but is counseled by O’Leary to be patient and simply observe until the term’s November end. After careful reflection, Kaine makes suggestions for the school’s February reopening:  

The development of more patience is difficult not only because of my own style of “getting things done,” but also because there is so muchhere that needs improvement. Seen against the background of poverty, other types of suffering, etc., the humility of my own efforts looms even larger. But, I really am enjoying myself.[16]


Kaine jumps into the school as a floater, with no specific role as yet. His Spanish improving, he asks students to teach him how to use a lathe and a plane. He knows something about welding iron from his dad’s shop in Kansas City, and knows it is a useful skill for these students to have. He begins to develop bold ideas for improving the school’s curriculum and the future prospects of its students, devising a ladder of projects of increasing complexity for first year students to work on at their own pace. In Kaine’s vision, second year students would supervise first year students, begin soliciting paid projects in the community like making new church benches, and take three week courses in electricity, welding, mechanics and masonry. Toward the end of the second year, students would complete a three-week volunteer project with a workshop in town, hopefully leading to a job after graduation.Kaine realizes there will be a gap between this vision and how it might actually play out, but his mother once told him he could be a pessimist and be right, or be an optimist and do good.  He wants to be realistic, but more than that he wants to do good. Reflecting on his vision, Kaine writes, “I know all this sounds ambitious, somewhere between my ideal and the present reality a middle ground will get hashed out.”[17]The middle ground, Kaine is learning, is where the Jesuit practice of reflection is most needed and where the decision to be a pessimist or an optimist makes all the difference: 

My positive outlook has not dimmed and I still have a great deal of enthusiasm for what I do (the enthusiasm is both my own and that which is instilled in me by my work with the young kids). And I come to appreciate more and more the positive effects both in the school (I think my ideas are really for some new blood here, and I know that Jim O’Leary is excited by them) and in other areas (e.g., I’m teaching some neighborhood kids who hang around the school how to read, I’ve formed a discussion group with some young people to talk over social concerns, etc.).[18]


As the term comes to an end in November, Kaine organizes a graduation ceremony to which all the students come as well as most of the Jesuit community—including the provincial, the parish priest and the director of the radio station. O’Leary surprises Kaine with a diploma lettered with his name which Kaine knows he will treasure more any other diploma. As Christmas approaches he reflects on those opportunities in a letter to his youngest brother Pat, a freshman at Rockhurst: 

I have missed you all a lot more this year because I’ve been so far away from all familiar sights, faces, etc. And there’s nothing to make you appreciate how good home is than being away from it for a while. I realize now, in a way I never thought of before, how lucky I’ve been and I want to help other people get some of the same chances that I’ve had. It’s tough to do in Honduras, but the things I’m learning here will help the work I do in the states later.[19]


Kaine is humbled by just how tough it is to help people in Honduras get those chances. That Christmas he receives a lesson in what humility and helping others can look like. With the vocational school on break until February, he is free to accompany the superior of the Honduras Jesuit Mission, Fr. Jarrell D. Patrick Wade, to visit remote mountain villages throughout the country.Patricio, as he is known then and until his death after fifty years of serving in Honduras, is a large, heavy-set man, whose heart is as big as he is.[20]From village to village, Patricio and Kaine drive as far as the four-wheel drive can take them, then travel the rest of the way up mountains on mules. Patricio says Mass for Catholic families, some of whom have not seen a priest for six months. Kaine has never been to Masses like these. They last several hours and are a form of worship more alive and full of emotion than any he has ever known. He hears the gospel in new ways as well. At Rockhurst, the preaching inspired by stories like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) might center on how the boys should be like Jesus and never exclude people, how they should be more accepting of different people. It was a legitimate lesson and it made an impact. Here in the mountain villages, Patricio also preaches about the compassion Jesus has for the poor and excluded, but in a way that makes it natural for those listening to identify with the Samaritan woman. For the first time, Kaine hears the reading from a different perspective, sees that where a person places herself in a scripture reading shapes what it communicates, understands the gift Patricio offers by opening up the scriptures to them in that way. Pope John Paul II has his suspicions that these Jesuit priests are espousing Marxism, but what Kaine witnesses are pastoral moments, a simple affirmation of the humanity of the poorest of the poor, a message of compassion that knows no boundaries and has no prerequisites.

When they arrive in each new village, Patricio shares peppermint from the bag of candy he carries with him. Kaine delights as the children literally dance for joy. But at one stop, Kaine’s assumptions about what it means to give people good things is turned on its head. He and Patricio visit a family with children whose distended stomachs make it obvious they are malnourished. As they leave, the father of the family hands a hemp rope bag to Patricio and, wishing him a Merry Christmas, opens the bag to show all the food he is giving the priest. What happens next is something Tim will reflect upon for years to come. Ultimately Tim credits it as the best advice he ever receives with as few words as possible. At the time, though, he is confused and actually angry. Patricio has the nerve to take the bag, saying something blithely like, “Oh thanks, this is so great.” As they walk away, Kaine is silently seething, shaking his head incredulously that Patricio, as well-fed as he is, will take food this family obviously needs. Patricio, not reluctant to speak his mind, nevertheless lets the silence between them remain for several minutes. He knows exactly what Tim is thinking. Finally, Patricio breaks the tense silence by saying something akin to, “Hey, hey Tim. You have to be really humble to take a gift from people when they are that poor.”[21]

At first, he hears Patricio’s comment as meaning it takes humility to recognize ourselves in need of compassion and mercy and help, like the Samaritan woman, and this is true. A deeper meaning of this encounter slowly reveals itself to Kaine over years of returning to it in his mind. Serving others is not always about giving good things, but instead about making it possible for others to give what is best of themselves. It takes humility to recognize the potential for good in all people. Had Patricio refused the gift of this father, he would have been denying that impoverished man what is most noble about being human, the ability to give something good.[22]When a person feels she has nothing to give, she has lost her dignity, she is truly poor in spirit, and something is terribly wrong. Patricio’s humility is evident in his recognition of the good in all people and his willingness to be in service to that goodness. That insight becomes profoundly motivating for Kaine, later animating him as a civil rights lawyer and inspiring his political life.

As he and Patricio return to the Jesuit residence in El Progreso, Kaine does not fully understand the significance of his experiences in the mountain villages. But something has shifted within him, and he knows it. The difference in Kaine  between his first month--struggling with Spanish, uncertain of his own faith, and unsure of what kind of contribution he would be able to make--and the remaining months is striking. By February, he is principal of the vocational school, determined more than ever to help the students develop and share their talents. He puts the new curriculum and hiring plans in place, laying the groundwork for the school to grow and hoping to begin to close the gap between its obvious shortcomings and its potential. The key word is ‘begin.’ Five years earlier when he led the Rockhurst spring fundraising drive he did not know how wide the gap truly was between the ideal of improving opportunities in Honduras and the reality. Now from Honduras, he composes a letter to the current Rockhurst students just before their Mission Impossible week, hoping to direct their attention to the difficulties encountered by the Jesuit mission, on whose behalf the students are outdoing one another with rowdy skits. With eyes wide open, Kaine describes the harsh reality of life for the young Honduran people he has come to know and love who, unlike the Rockhurst students, have so few choices: 

I had the privilege to visit the Jesuit Mission in Honduras in 1974 when I was a sophomore at Rockhurst High School. As I climbed on the plane to return home after my stay I remember looking back at the banana fields and mountains I had spent a few days getting to know and thinking that I would return to work in Honduras someday. During this school year I’ve had that opportunity.

There are many things I could explain to demonstrate that the help of Rockhurst is needed in Honduras. First, the country is a world away from the kind of life we have in Kansas City. It is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and large portions of the population suffer from malnutrition, even to the point of starving to death. Very few towns have electricity, running water, a doctor, education past the sixth grade, or paved streets and the mountainous rural areas are poorer still. And, one of the sad truths about the poverty here is that it has been perpetuated by activities of the American government and American corporations within the country.

The Jesuits work with the people in a number of ways---through pastoral activities and education institutions, publications and a radio station, efforts to organize the workers and rural ‘compesinos.’ In general, the mission tries to motivate the people to work for the social justice that must be a part of any community based on Christianity. Your contribution enables the priests and brothers to continue this important work. 

But, more important than the question “How does our contribution help?” is the question “Why should we help?” Working here has given me a clearer idea of the responsibility we have towards Hondurans and I’d like to share that with you.

We all face many choices. Some are simple day-to-day things; others will affect our lives for a long time. Right now each of you is making a decision in choosing how seriously you want to take your studies. And a lot of you are probably thinking about what you might like to do after you graduate. While some of these decisions will be difficult to wrestle with, the fact that you         have these choices is an incredible luxury. 

Most Hondurans don’t have the choices you do. When a child is born into a poor family of 8 brothers and sisters his life is more-or-less determined. When he reaches age 14-15 he will go into the fields to pick coffee or chop bananas. Then, if he is lucky enough to escape the many diseases caused by poor diet, bad water, alcoholism, insects, etc., he will have a bruisingly monotonous 40 years ahead of him at this tough physical work. No one ever asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, no one gives him an aptitude test, no one encourages him. 

Those of us who have opportunities don’t really “deserve” them. The fact that we were born into a society that can provide us material comfort and chances to develop our talents is no more than a stroke of luck. And once we realize that we have been given the gift of a future, a gift that so many of our brothers and sisters do not have, we need to be grateful and make the    most out of it. The most fulfilling way to exercise our freedoms is by using them to bring freedom and hope to those who are poor in these things. Bringing hope to the poor is what Christ’s life was about.

We are fortunate in our material well-being. By sharing what we have with those not blessed we can become “rich” in the true sense of the word—concerned people who see that only by the dedication to others will this world be improved. And if you try to help with this in mind, your giving will bring you the greater gifts of openheartedness and commitment. ---Tim Kaine[23]


The poverty Kaine describes is so visible and the opportunities so negligible, the hole between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ so gaping, that it can be disheartening. In the faces of his students he looks directly into the face of social sin, incompleteness, brokenness, pain, oppression and the marginalized human condition, into all the ways that communities, institutions, nations and the world fall short every day.[24]But his mother’s distinction between choosing to be a pessimist--and to be right--or choosing to be an optimist--and to do good—makes more and more sense to him. His naturally ebullient spirit alone cannot be enough of a buffer against all the forces conspiring against his Honduran students. Kaine needs to make a conscious choice to commit himself to avoiding the “cynicism or negativism that often characterizes those who see a gap between the ‘is’ and ‘ought’” and instead to focus on a “positiveset of ideas and efforts.”[25]

Standing hopefully in the gap between the is and the ought is not only a practical stance for Kaine, but a spiritual one. He remembers how struck he was with Plato in high school, with the notion that what we see are just shadows on the wall, that a life of faith involves believing in something real and true beyond what can be seen at that moment. Jesuits like Patricio and Jaime O’Leary give Kaine a picture of what that faithfulness looks like. It means remaining in the uncomfortable middle ground between ideal and reality, with an ear cocked to what might be out of tune and an eye toward how to set it right. Kaine recognizes that this moral ear is fundamental to what it means to be human, and he aims to maintain his humanity. As the vocational school term nears its end, and Kaine readies himself to return home after nearly nine months in Honduras, he is grateful; “It has been a renewal for me in so many ways, I can only be profoundly thankful that I’ve had such an opportunity, albeit brief. . . if nothing else, my time here will enable me to understand better the forms my gratitude should take.”[26]He is aware that this short time in Honduras will help in the “slow focusing of the direction” of his life, one where he hopes, like the Jesuits, to live an active life springing from a rich inner life. The Jesuits are at times called “contemplatives in action” because of spiritual practices aimed at sharpening the vision to see God in daily life and training the moral ear to hear one’s own call to be of practical use. Kaine sees this playing out in Patricio’s special brand of humility. He recognizes it in Jaime O’Leary’s enthusiasm and persistence and ability to help people in a concerned but not condescending way. Writing to his father from Honduras just after his twenty-third birthday, Kaine knows he wants this for himself, even if he struggles to describe how he will maintain the balance of quiet reflection and active service he sees in the Jesuits:

In my lucid moments, when not submerged in hectic activity, I too feel that the important activities are those in which people encounter each other in simple and direct ways. I sometimes believe that 95% of social organization is just a structuring of time together,in which goals, or objectives, are secondary to the mere fact of being with one another.

As you say, there is so much to learn from others. I put the questions this way—Does one learn more about others from looking within or more about oneself from reaching out to others? The answer, of course, is yes. 

Trying to reconcile the private, reflective part of myself and the part which wants to spend energies in helping others has been a conflict I’ve grappled with for some time. For this reason, although my “first love” will always be literature and writing, I have not pursued the discipline with the single-minded dedication that makes for quality work. I fear that such dedication leads to detachment from real problems, a detachment I’ve seen in many of my professors at Harvard      and MU. 

Then too, without time for systematic reflection, attempts to do “social” work become kind of frustrating and losing sight of goals is a danger. I hope to be able to unify a career in social problem-solving (i.e. law) with time for writing. The activities complement each other.[27]



When Kaine returns to Harvard for the fall term of 1981, he has become one of those students he noticed during first year who brought interesting life experiences to bear on legal studies. One person who notices him is second year law student Anne Holton, who began her first year at Harvard while Kaine was in Honduras and is now a leader of the Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) where law students gain clinical experience by representing inmates in the Massachusetts prison system at disciplinary and parole hearings. Before meeting Kaine, she hears of  “this cute guy who had been a good PLAP during his first year” before he took off a year to go to Honduras.[28]She determines to recruit him back to the prison project, and is soon handed the perfect opportunity. While conducting an initial informational interview with an inmate, the client mentions he is looking for his records from an older case when he was represented by a student named Tim Kaine. She feels like jumping up and hugging the man because it gives her just the excuse needed to go talk to Kaine. “I can solve your problem for you, sir!” she assures the client. Holton solves the inmate’s problem, and the inmate’s problem solves her own—he gives her a way to recruit Kaine back to the prison project. Holton’s father often says, “Don’t be too sure,” wise counsel in most circumstances, but in this case she has no doubt. It is immediately obvious to her that Kaine has “a sparkle in his eye and a sense of fun and joy of life.”[29]He also seems to share her values. Holton and her three siblings were born and spent their early years in Roanoke, Virginia. Just shy of her twelfth birthday, Holton’s father Abner Linwood Holton, Jr. was elected Governor of Virginia, and the family moved to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, the state capitol. School desegregation was a turbulent issue in Virginia in 1970, and the Republican Governor Holton and his wife Virginia made headlines—including a photo on the front page of the New York Times--by sending their own four children to the recently integrated Richmond public schools.[30]Holton retains a deep connection to her Richmond roots. As she and Kaine become engaged and explore job possibilities and living environments in both Kansas City and Richmond, part of Holton’s “wooing strategy” is to find a vibrant racially mixed Catholic Church, in a low-income neighborhood, with a gospel choir, where Kaine can find spirited Masses like those he has been seeking out since Honduras. Holton identifies as a Quaker, and has been attending Quaker meetings since college, but searches in earnest for such a Catholic Church in Richmond. 

She finds a match in St. Elizabeth’s Church where the pastor, Fr. Mike Schmied, officiates their wedding in November 1984 and hosts their reception in the church basement, a celebration “basic, simple, straightforward, nice—sweet like Tim and Anne.[31]Schmied is drawn to this “friendly, outgoing, service-oriented and approachable” pair whom he sees trying to use their law degrees to do good.[32]Kaine is at a small law firm assisting with death penalty appeals; he writes about the moral outrage of this method of punishment in the Richmond paper.[33]Most of the appeal cases he works on do not lead to a stay of an execution, many times because of poor legal representation during the trial phase. In many cases, a skilled defense lawyer can save a convicted felon from a death sentence, or at least leave the kind of trail that opens the door to its later commutation, but most of those on death row cannot afford that caliber of legal defense. 

Kaine often feels his efforts are an exercise in futility. It is hard to find the inner strength to continue working for months on a case, knowing there is little chance his client will be spared the death chamber. He turns to Schmied for guidance—why should he persist in an effort bound to fail? Schmied says something that rings true to Kaine, that crystallizes the advice Patricio gave him in the mountains of Honduras. He is doing important work, Schmeid tells him, because he is letting a condemned person know his life has value, that there is something good in him, and that there is someone out there willing to fight on behalf of that inherent goodness. When Richard Lee Whitney tells Kaine, “I just can’t do this by myself. I need to have you walk in with me,” and Kaine enters the execution chamber with him, holding his hand as they strap him to the table, it is one of the more humbling moments of Kaine’s life.[34]

In the spring of 1987, Schmied leaves St. E’s parish to work in El Salvador with a humanitarian organization. At a final gathering in his honor, Kaine returns Schmied’s encouragement, singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” for his departing pastor: 

Why should I feel discouraged/Why should the shadows come/Why should my heart feel lonely/And long for heaven and home/When Jesus is my portion/A constant friend is He/His eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches over me/His Eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches me/I sing because I’m happy/I sing because I’m free/His eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches me.

Despite his difficult and emotionally taxing work with death penalty appeals, the song lyrics capture something of the spirit of Tim Kaine, an enthusiastic member of the church’s gospel choir. His happiness is as much a choice as a natural disposition. Anne introduced Kaine to some of the great Quaker thinkers, including the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, and Kaine adopts Fox’s advice for living as his own motto: Walk cheerfully over the earth; answering that of God in everyone.

This short exhortation packs a lot of meaning for Kaine. Fox himself was a rather gloomy person, so it was hard for him to have a cheerful attitude, but Fox told himself and others to keep moving, keep walking, to go outside one’s comfort zone over all the earth, listening for the answer of God in everyone. Listening to how God is present in each person, Fox instructed, means believing there is a spark of the divine in everyone and paying attention to it. Kaine’s experiences in Honduras and as a civil rights lawyer bring out in him what his mentor Patricio might have called the “moral ear,” but what Holton sees as a “funny mix of optimism.” In that powerful and funny mix is both realism and hopefulness, an appreciation of each person’s strengths and weaknesses, an awareness of what is lacking in certain circumstances, and an understanding of the limitations of people and institutions. Kaine recognizes that things do not always turn out the way they should, that the gap between what is and what should be can be very wide, and yet he strives to walk cheerfully. For Holton, it is a charming trait that means that rather than expecting good outcomes, Kaine is surprised and delighted by them.

In each elected position Kaine holds or seeks—from Richmond city council member to mayor, from Governor of Virginia to its Senator, to vice-presidential candidate, Kaine is motivated by the potential of what can be accomplished, while at the same time remaining keenly aware of limitations. Kaine’s most vulnerable moments in these positions come when face to face with the ultimate human limitation: death.  As a gubernatorial candidate in 2005, Kaine is criticized by his opponent, Jerry Kilgore, for his earlier legal work on behalf of condemned murderers guilty of heinous crimes. Kaine promises voters that he will follow Virginia law with respect to the death penalty, rather than allowing his personal moral objections determine his position on individual cases. He assures Virginia voters that he respects the state’s constitution and the rule of law as a framework for democratic governance. As Governor, he says, he will take his civic obligation to uphold the rule of law as seriously as his moral obligation to oppose the death penalty. But asserting that principle in theory is far easier than resolving it in practice. As Governor, he tasks his legal team with carefully and thoroughly reviewing every detail of every death sentence to look for any possible legal justification within existing Virginia law that provides the rationale for the Governor to commute it. Kaine studies every case himself, developing an intimate familiarity with each one. His staff watches as he seeks to discern, with quiet contemplation, an internal struggle visible on his face and at times in tears, whether any convincing reason exists to stop the execution. In only one case, in which the mental capacity of the defendant Percy Levar Walton is called into question during the original trail, is Kaine and his legal team satisfied they have the rationale within Virginia law to commute a sentence. When no such conditions exist and it is clear that the execution order meets the requirements under state law, Kaine’s anguish at his self-imposed powerlessness to reverse its course is palpable.

Execution days develop a pattern. Around lunchtime, his staff notices that Kaine’s naturally sunny disposition clouds and the sparkle in his eye dims. At mid-afternoon, he leaves the office to spend several hours alone. He might spend quiet time reading or writing, and then go for a hike in the woods.  He returns around six o’clock in the evening, somber and subdued, knowing that the decision to allow the execution is reversible up to the final moment. One of his staff is on the phone with the head of the Department of Corrections, who keeps the Governor’s office informed of every step.[35]As the execution approaches, Kaine’s chief of staff, Wayne Turnage, or his legal counsel, Mark Rubin, come to Kaine and ask whether there is any reason the execution should not go forward. In Virginia, an execution cannot proceed without an explicit affirmation from the Governor. Kaine, bearing the full burden of the Commonwealth’s power to take a life, speaks the words, “I have no reason to stop the execution,” or “the execution should go forward.”[36]

On November 9, 2006, this process is especially excruciating for the most personal of reasons: Kaine knows the mother of the condemned inmate because she had worked at his law firm. She knew how much time and energy Kaine spent trying to prevent executions. In the case of this defendant--her son--no lingering doubt remains regarding his guilt or his mental capacity. This young man went into a bank with a shotgun, killed the security guard and robbed the bank, threatening to kill others. It was a heinous crime. And it is a cosmic test. Will Kaine follow the rule of law in Virginia, or make an exception in this case because he knows and cares a great deal about the mother? He allows the execution. 

Kaine’s powerlessness to stop the execution may be self-imposed, but he is also keenly aware of powerlessness over the ultimate limitation of death. He knows from consoling the families of those 32 students and faculty killed at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 that nothing can take away pain or reverse death’s finality. Yet he believes that a leader must make himself vulnerable, must run toward painful situations without despairing even when those circumstances cannot be changed. He holds closely to the epiphany that came in high school reading Plato’s Republic. The visible shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave are mere suggestions of a more complete picture that lies beyond our sight. There is a larger spiritual whole that makes it possible, even imperative, to be mindful of the gap, to stand in the tension between what is and what ought to be, to work out one’s salvation there in “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) even if the task of closing the gap forever remains unfinished. For Kaine, spirituality and politics have in common a basic and fundamental recognition that “everything is not perfect, and each of us has the power of illuminating the gap between what is and what could be.”[37]The oft-repeated line his political hero, his father-in-law Linwood Holton, “Don’t be too sure,” is for Kaine a central aspect of the Christian message. There is a humility in not knowing, an intellectual and spiritual discipline in admitting uncertainty about everything. But there is another way of seeing it. Don’t be too sure that you can’t do anything to make a situation better. Kaine hopes in his public life to serve a good purpose, rather than to be self-serving. When he encounters the many problems in the vocational school in Honduras, a young Tim Kaine comes up with a plan to improve it. Now as he sets his face toward a political system in some disarray and a nation divided on many axes, his experience with the ever-practical and always-reflecting Jesuits—the contemplatives in action—prompts him to continually ask himself what his “highest and best use” might be.[38]As at age twenty-three, over forty years ago in Honduras, Kaine at sixty years old has his “lucid moments, when not submerged in hectic activity” when he reflects on his life and work, and takes inspiration from a biblical passage from the first letter of John; “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  (1 John 3:2). 




Rockhurst High School Yearbook, 1976


Tim Kaine at vocational school in Honduras, 1981


A photo of Tim Kaine and Anne Holton in 1983 the year they graduated from law school.  Richmond Times Dispatch 



09/02/1970; Virginia Tayloe Holton, daughter of Gov. A. Linwood Holton arriving at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond to begin her freshman year. The school is beginning court-ordered integration this year. (Librado Romero/The New York Times)



Senator Tim Kaine visits Honduras with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Feb, 2015



[1]Author Interview, Tim Kaine, April 17, 2016

[2]“The Jesuits Search for a New Identity,” Time (April 23, 1973).

[3]Quoted in Matthew T. Eggemeier “A Mysticism of Open Eyes: Compassion for A Suffering World and the Askesis ofContemplative Prayer,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 2012, 43.   


[4]Tim Kaine, March 14, 1980.  This letter, and others used in this article, come from a collection of letters that Tim Kaine sent to his parents in 1980 and 1981. Until Al and Kathy Kaine sold the family house on Cedar Street in Kansas City in 2013, Tim Kaine did not know his parents had kept the letters all these years. Kaine has yet to read the letters himself. 

[5]Tim Kaine, March 14, 1980. 



[8]Kevin Clark, Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press), 2004, 79.

[9]Ibid, 108.

[10]Author Interview, Al and Kathy Kaine, June, 2016. 

[11]Tim Kaine, February 19, 1981.

[12]Tim Kaine, October 12, 1980. 

[13]Author Interview, Fr. Jim White, SJ, June, 2016. 

[14]Tim Kaine, October 19, 1980.

[15]Tim Kaine, October 1, 1980.

[16]Tim Kaine, November 21, 1980.




[20]Fr. Valentin Menendez, Funeral Homily, found on October 1, 2016, at http://jesuits.org/profile-detail/Jarrell-Wade.


[21]Tim Kaine recounted this story in an author interview on Nov 4, 2015. A published version can also be found at: “For Kaine, A Faith in Service,” by Timothy Dwyer, The Washington Post, November 3, 2005.

[22]Author Interview, Tim Kaine, November 4, 2015.

[23]Tim Kaine, “Honduras,” Rockhurst High Review, 1981. 

[24]Author Interview, November 4, 2015. 

[25]Tim Kaine, February 28, 1981.

[26]Tim Kaine, March 10, 1981.

[27]Tim Kaine, February 28, 1981.

[28]Author Interview, Anne Holton, 


[30]See http://www.richmond.com/news/race-in-richmond-inequalities-persist-in-schools/article_518f4f60-6bec-533a-a9fb-1f7b6e867c1c.htmland http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/sam-adams-charles-weltner-linwood-holton-and-the-value-of/article_b2a25dc1-4b3f-5ee6-bc96-25878641d3ab.html

[31]Author Interview, Monsignor Michael Schmied, 


[33]http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/article_5b14a7f7-ca47-5797-9f45-35d087ab1dbf.html; reprint of Richmond Times Dispatcharticle from July 12, 1987.

[34]Author Interview, Tim Kaine, April, 2016. 

[35]Author Interview, Mark Rubin,

[36]Author Interview, Wayne Turnage, 

[37]Author Interview, Tim Kaine, November, 2015. 

[38]Author Interview,  Tim Kaine, December, 2016.