In her new book Being Catholic Now, activist Kerry Kennedy interviews 37 prominent Catholics (many of them Irish American) to discover what being Catholic means to this generation of followers. Kennedy tells CAHIR O'DOHERTY how her faith as a Catholic, which she learned as a child in the center of America's royal family, has carried her through all the heartbreak that have haunted the Kennedys over the years.

GROWING up in a house and family affected by great loss, it's no surprise to discover that for Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, her Catholicism has been a well of strength and solace for decades. Although as an adult she has come to question some of the teachings of the church, all the while she has remained a deeply impassioned believer.

For Kennedy her faith and her family's spirited commitment to social justice are indistinguishable. In 1988 she set up the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and since then she has led more than 40 human rights delegations working on international issues as diverse as child labor, ethnic violence, disappearances and environmental protection. It's simply an expression of her faith at work.

In Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning (Crown Publishers), Kennedy has hit on the idea of asking some of the most familiar names in America about their own experience of the faith. Among her famous respondents are individuals as diverse as Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Pelosi, Frank McCourt and Susan Sarandon.

"I set out to talk to Catholics who were well known for depth and expertise on a particular issue or profession and which represented all walks of life," Kennedy explained to the Irish Voice.

"Actors, historians, journalists, political commentators, judges, cardinals, priests, nuns, union leaders, businessmen and students ranging in age from 19 to 86. Liberals and conservatives, people from various races, those who love the church and those who feel it has wronged them."

Even by ordinary standards of Catholic piety, the family of Robert F. Kennedy was - and has remained - unusually devout and steeped in the traditions of the church.

"Along with my 10 brothers and sisters we woke up, got on our knees and consecrated the day to the glory of God though the immaculate heart of Mary. Before and after breakfast, lunch and dinner we prayed to God, and then after dinner we read the Bible out loud."

Kennedy, however, sees nothing unusual in her family's devotion.

"I think it was quite a typical Catholic family in the sixties from my generation. Then as an adult, I like so many of my peers have asked tough questions about what it means to be Catholic today. Such as what do I want to pass on to my kids, what is and is not sacrosanct."

There's no question that Kennedy keeps her own counsel on that last issue. Over the years she has been, she says, conflicted and dismayed by some of actions of the hierarchy in the U.S. and around the world.

This dismay sometimes finds expression. Earlier this year she was in Rome for a conference on Africa, where it is estimated that a staggering 30 million people are projected to die of AIDS by 2020, a number that would be drastically reduced by strong preventative measures - including condom use. One word from the church could save tens of millions of lives, she realized.

But Pope Benedict XVI, before becoming Pope, was a staunch defender of the magisterium of the church, which holds that the use of birth control is a mortal sin, and that couples who use it might be condemning themselves to eternal damnation.

Kennedy was having none of it. When the Holy Father approached her at the Vatican she asked, "Your Eminence, in view of the tragedy unfolding in Africa, for the sake of the sanctity of life, would you consider changing the church's position on the use of condoms?"

The people around her stepped back as though anticipating an incoming thunderbolt. But the Pope gazed back at her serenely, saying only, "God bless you," as he passed.

Says Kennedy, "The Catholic Church is one of the largest organizations ministering to people with AIDS in Africa, but I just felt it was the right thing to do to speak up. In April the Pope publicly announced that he had asked a group of bishops to review the church's position on the use of condoms by people living with AIDS. I was very happy to see that."

Faith is deeply personal, and its expressions says much about us. One of the conclusions that Kennedy came to after interviewing 37 Catholic Americans is that everyone has an argument with the church.

From the most orthodox to the most progressive, Kennedy realized that part of being Catholic means having an argument with the church.

"As Pope Benedict said when he came to the U.S. a few months ago, one of the pillars of Catholicism is the search for the truth - and if you're searching for the truth you're going to have conflict. You can have conflict with the institution without abandoning it," she says.

From Bill Maher to Bill O'Reilly, in her new book Kennedy has set out to quiz a wide cross section of individuals and backgrounds. Andrew Sullivan, the prominent journalist with The Atlantic Monthly - who is also openly gay and HIV positive - has elected to remain within the church, and his experience particularly intrigued her.

"Sullivan is in many ways an arch-Republican. He was very conservative on almost every issue except for gay rights," she says.

"What was eye opening in conducting all these interviews was that so many of these people make me scream at the television when they appear on it - but I also found this deep emotional connection to them in person when they talked about what it means to them to be Catholic, and how important their faith really is to them."

Sullivan told her about his experience of being an Irish Catholic growing up in England. He was ostracized because of his religion and that made him, he told her, embrace it all the more. It was a hard fought thing, and not something he would now ever consider giving up, although it has harsh things to say about his life now.

Says Kennedy, "There's a wonderful commonalty that we don't often talk about which we share as Catholics, that's something I want to get across and celebrate. One of the things that surprised me about this book was how often I found myself laughing. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, told me that when she was a girl she only wanted to be a priest. The nuns, she said, were wonderful but the priests held all the power."

Another vivid tale in a book full of them involves actress Susan Sarandon. When she was seven years old she received rosary beads from her aunt.

What she didn't know was that they were glow-in-the-dark beads. When she went to bed that night she turned off the lights and noticed they were glowing brightly. She thought she was having a vision and she began to panic. She was certain she didn't want to be a saint.

Celebrated author Frank McCourt also told Kennedy of how back in Limerick he would leave confessions on Saturday evening feeling like he was walking on air. In America they told him that for the same experience he should try therapy instead.

An atheist, McCourt told her simply, "I'm reconciled to the oblivion that is coming."

Faith and the absence of faith are both journeys, and Kennedy's provocative and thoughtful book hears from them all.