Sullivan Remembered for a Life of Compassion

Article excerpt

News of Richmond, Va., Bishop Walter Sullivan's death in December released a tidal wave of mourning, not only for the unassuming prelate whose embracing spirit made him deeply loved, but also for an era when bishops like him were, if not the rule, at least a growing exception to it.

The controversial "peace bishop"--whose outspoken opposition to war and nuclear weapons once incited the fury of conservative Catholics and the Virginia establishment--had led a quiet life since his 2003 retirement. He passed away Dec. 11 at 84.

Elevated to bishop in 1970, Sullivan was one of "Jadot's boys"--so named after Pope Paul VI's apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot. Paul had instructed his delegate to find new American bishops who were committed to the spirit of Vatican

Bishops Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas; Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle: These were men who were not afraid to speak truth to the wolves of war--a dangerous way to live.

Both Hunthausen and Sullivan would eventually be subjected to shadowy papal investigations. But Paul wanted shepherds, not CEOs. In Sullivan, he got both.

On Good Friday morning each year, Sullivan would sit down with his chief financial officer, John Barrett, to balance the diocese's books.

"It had to be done in time for the Good Friday services at the cathedral," Barrett said in a 2011 interview. "And before Bishop Sullivan made a visit to one of the prisons in his diocese," which the bishop did every year.

After visiting the infamous and overcrowded Spring Street jail in downtown Richmond, only a few blocks from Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sullivan became a fierce advocate of prison reform, famously sending a check to the warden for $2,000 to buy new television sets for the prisoners.

Sullivan called the death penalty immoral and ordered the bells of all the Catholic churches in his diocese rung each time there was an execution.

Until the end of his life, he corresponded with numerous inmates who considered him their friend. "Hello, Bishop Sullivan Beloved Divine Soul," wrote one of them. "Have you laid down with the dogs yet?"

The third child and only son of Catholic parents whose marriage fell apart when Sullivan was 4 years old, the bishop knew by the end of the eighth grade that he wanted to become a priest.

But the stigma of coming from a broken family followed him into the seminary, where he was told that his native Baltimore-Washington archdiocese would not financially support his candidacy or, for that matter, allow him to return to the diocese as a priest.

His parents' divorce, the archdiocese said, could give scandal to the faithful. …