"Thank you for all your years of dedicated, loving service to Pax Christi. Your leadership has inspired countless Catholics to put the gospel into action -- and kept together the growing Catholic peace movement. You have been a prophetic voice, wise leader... " Father John Dear, SJ, was speaking of his friend, Bishop Walter Sullivan, who, after serving twelve years as Bishop President of Pax Christi, was retiring in August 2003.
For Bishop Sullivan, contact with Pax Christi began many years before involvement as an active member and president. In 1968, before serving as bishop, Father Sullivan learned of the peace activities of this group during the Vietnam War. He remembers, "What really impressed me was not only the rare commitment of those opposed to the war, but also the response that we were getting from the other side: the illogical, irrational response from those in authority."
Bishop Sullivan once said that, "Pax Christi has no power or weapons except the Peace of Christ that involves justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation among peoples. We still believe that we can make a difference in witnessing for peace, so longed for by the world community. I love the axiom: there is no way to peace -- peace is the way!"
Leadership for Bishop Sullivan does not come only from words. Direct action is also part of his commitment to peace. One example took place in July 2000 when he led a group of one hundred fifty Pax Christi USA members and friends in closing Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in Virginia, reportedly a storage site for Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles and about 160 W-80 nuclear warheads used to arm the missiles.
Born in Washington, D.C., Bishop Walter Francis Sullivan received his seminary education at St. Charles College and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Richmond in 1953. Following ministry as associate pastor, he soon was called to serve in administrative roles: as Chancellor of the diocese, as rector of the Cathedral, and as auxiliary bishop.
In 1974 he was installed as eleventh bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. In this role he has become known as a national leader of the religious community’s involvement in the work of justice and peace.
A variety of experiences contributed to Bishop Sullivan’s involvement in actions to promote an awareness of social and justice issues. About a trip to Poland he stated, "I had an occasion to go to Poland and see the death camps....these things become a part of your psyche and convictions of what you should be about." In 1986 he commissioned Linda Gissen to create a major Holocaust sculpture for the grounds of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond. The sculpture, Rachel Weeping for Her Children(*), was the first public Holocaust memorial in the state of Virginia and the only one commissioned by a diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in the country.
Bishop Sullivan is recognized for his consistent work against the death penalty. Upon learning of the practice in the Philippines of tolling the bells to mourn the execution of a citizen of that country, Bishop Sullivan wrote to all churches in his diocese, "I ask all diocesan churches and chapels with bell towers to toll their bells at 9:00 p.m. on November 9, 1999, and on the evening of every execution until we bring an end to this inhumane practice."
Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) honored Bishop Sullivan with the "Truth in Action" award during their 10th anniversary celebration in October 2001. They noted, "Bishop Sullivan’s consistent work against the death penalty reminds us that we can prayerfully and boldly proclaim the sanctity of life, particularly for those facing state-sanctioned killing."
In his role as bishop, Bishop Sullivan served on the writing committee for the 10th anniversary statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops 1993 peace pastoral, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace. In March 2003, he issued a statement on war in Iraq which began, "Our nation is at war with Iraq. I deeply regret that our nation’s leaders have determined that war is necessary to resolve our differences with Iraq. Yet, we must now be united in a concern for all those caught up in this conflict." In an invitation to prayer he siad, "Whatever our religious faith or tradition, we will gather for the strength and courage we can draw from our shared values and convictions... As war stares us in the face, we will look to humanity’s future and embrace the cause of peace with continued concern and renewed determination."
Throughout his ministry, Bishop Sullivan has won the admiration and love of those he served as well as those who served with him.
Phyllis Turner Jepson, Local/Regional Director, Pax Christi USA states, "Bishop Sullivan, a gentle and generous spirit, faced the challenges of meeting violence with nonviolence, discrimination with fairness and equality, oppression with liberation, unjust actions and structures with justice and forgiveness -- with the wisdom and courage of a great prophet. He has been an outspoken critic of the death penalty, poverty and racism. Bishop Sullivan has also been a crucial voice on issues regarding nuclear disarmament and the Middle East."
On a more personal note, Phyllis remembers in a letter to Bishop Sullivan, "I still marvel how people related to you at that event (a gathering of diocesan religious educators). I don’t believe there was a moment that whole day when someone wasn’t patting you on the back, nudging you in the rib, or giving you a big hug; you were totally open to them and it was so movingly obvious that you were dearly loved by those you served....
I thought about how deeply touched I was when you told me that your dogs had taught you as much about God’s unconditional love as any human being. How you could leave them time and time again and no matter how much you neglected them, they were always full of joy at your return."
Adele DellaValle-Rauth, Diocesan Haiti Twinning Resource, and Bob DellaValle-Rauth, Coordinator, Pax Christi Virginia, both members of the Diocese of Richmond since 1980, gave tribute to Bishop Sullivan in these words:
"Bishop Sullivan, throughout his 29 years as Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond and 12 years as Bishop President of Pax Christi USA, has always been a staunch promoter and supporter of the social teachings of the church. The Office of Justice and Peace established by the Bishop is probably one of the best staffed and most fruitful in the nation, actively involved in all aspects of justice and peace such as militarism, the death penalty, women’s issues, abortion, gays and lesbians, and other life issues. In his often strong but truthful statements to the press and in his "Tidings" articles in The Catholic Virginian, Bishop Sullivan has often taken very vulnerable positions on the war policies of the U.S. -- this in a state known for the largest military complex in the world. Bishop Sullivan walks a fine line between opposing militarism and war while supporting the young men and women who serve in our armed forces. Bishop Sullivan is an active, thoughtful and compassionate doer in the ways of peace and social justice.
In 1984, Bishop Sullivan proclaimed the country of Haiti the official missionary outreach partner of the Diocese of Richmond. This proclamation has resulted, to date, in the twinning of 56 parishes. Annually more than 15 parish groups and retreats go to Haiti and more than 600 people have been to Haiti over the years. The people of this diocese have been enriched spiritually and are drawn to share personally and materially from their abundance. Bishop Sullivan’s impact on the Richmond Diocese and the lives of the people of Haiti will continue to be felt in the schools, churches, clinics, literacy programs and many deep relationships of solidarity that have grown from his vision and pastoral leadership."
At the 2003 National Assembly of Pax Christi USA, the National Council named Bishop Sullivan an Ambassador of Peace. This is not simply an honor but more specifically a commissioning of the individual to continue the work as an official representative of Pax Christi USA. In this commissioning, Eric LeCompte, chair of the PCUSA National Council said, "We are grateful to have this opportunity at the assembly to thank Bishop Sullivan for all that he has given us through his leadership and his personal witness. He has set an example for all those who are in positions of leadership within the church, pastoral and prophetic, compassionate toward those who suffer and critical of the systems which oppress the poor and continue the cycle of violence. We are confident that even in retirement, Walter will continue to challenge our church and nation to live up to the dictates of justice."
Bishop Sullivan’s inspiring commitment to justice and peace is for a lifetime.
You are invited to see Rachel Weeping for Her Children on Hill Connections.
Pictures -- thanks to Pax Christi USA.