Phyllis THEROUX, The Good Bishop: The Life of Walter F. Sullivan. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. 262 pages. $20.00 paperback. ISBN 978-1-62698-024-2. Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.
“What are the values we wish to proclaim? Are these values rooted in the Gospel of Jesus or rooted in blind national self-interest disguised as patriotism?” Walter Sullivan posed this provocative question to an audience of Catholic military families in Kempsville, Virginia, in 1981, making clear his readiness to speak out for the central values of the Gospel no matter how uncomfortable the situation. To be associated with the making or use of nuclear weapons is immoral, he insisted to this crowd deeply involved with just such weapons. It was vintage Walter Sullivan, ready to speak clearly what he believed even if it “afflicted the comfortable”, but equally ready to act to “comfort the afflicted”—death row inmates, prisoners, HIV/AIDs patients, grieving families, the poor in Appalachia. It is this “good bishop” that we meet in the pages of Phyllis Theroux’s interesting biography.
Walter Sullivan was bishop of Richmond, Virginia, for nearly thirty years, from 1974 to 2003. Deeply committed to the Church, he did not consider it his duty to always proclaim the party line outlined by Vatican bureaucrats: “I am not a company man.” Rather it was the Gospel of Jesus that directed his life and actions, open always to the “signs of the times” as they manifested themselves in culture and society. This led him into a broad range of ministries rooted in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, most notably his regular visits to prisoners, especially death row inmates, in Virginia’s prison system. He advocated against the death penalty—unafraid to speak truth to power. Concluding her chapter on Sullivan’s prison ministry—”The Least Among Us”—Theroux observes that such compassionate visitation is rare among bishops, notwithstanding the familiarity of the admonition “I was in prison and you visited me”.
More than simply a biography of Walter Sullivan, this book raises deeper questions about what makes a “good bishop.” In a time when the episcopal office is too often seen as the equivalent to a corporate CEO, Walter Sullivan’s example stands out as a challenge to the status quo, requiring someone ready to take risks, to speak out, to act in spite of the consequences. And there were to be significant consequences: within and beyond the Richmond diocese, some saw Sullivan’s actions both as unfaithful to strict church teaching and as unpatriotic. (Some still do: commenting on this new biography, one conservative Virginia blogger entitled her entry, “Walter Sullivan: ‘The Good Bishop‘ -Hahahahahahahaha”, accusing him of “decimating the Diocese of Richmond which still hasn’t recovered,” then lists his perceived liturgical and doctrinal abuses.)
Virginia, with its high concentration of military-linked jobs and industries, was an unlikely setting for a "peace bishop.” Yet Walter Sullivan, who did not consider himself a pacifist, came to be best known for his stands against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, U.S. military interventions abroad, and for his open support for conscientious objectors. Theroux takes the reader through his evolution from relative passivity to outspoken criticism of the militarism that has become so much a part of American life. His involvement with Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace organization, placed him at the center of this national conversation along with a handful of other U.S. bishops—Leroy Matthiesen, Carroll Dozier, Thomas Gumbleton, Raymond Hunthausen, Rembert Weakland—all of them instrumental in shaping the U.S. Bishops‘ peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace. On the day after the pastoral was released, Sullivan received a letter from the Vatican announcing an investigation “to clarify objectively questions which have arisen concerning both doctrine and discipline.” Was the age of “faithful dissent” being replaced by “the adventure of orthodoxy”?
Words and actions often come together in symbolic actions, and there were many of these in Bishop Sullivan’s life. Three of these in particular exemplify his understanding of episcopal ministry. The first took place after his formal installation as bishop of Richmond. Rather than the usual formal dinner with family and dignitaries, he chose “to celebrate with a big picnic of hamburgers and hot dogs across the street from the cathedral in Munroe Park.” All were invited: family, dignitaries, the homeless, the hungry—he was bishop for all. A second example, in 1980, occurred at a diocesan “Unite for Justice” convocation of priests and laity where he came forward in all his episcopal finery, then laid both mitre and crozier at the feet of the assembled people: “the Spirit is throughout the Church. It isn’t just in the bishop.” A third moment, one that exemplified his commitment to interfaith understanding, especially in relations between Christians and Jews, took place on April 26, 1987, when a bronze and copper figure of Rachel—circled by six tongues of flame for the six million Jews who were murdered—was installed on the grounds of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Her fingers are pressed against her eyes as she weeps. Carved in both Hebrew and English into the stone beneath her is one word, “Remember".
It would be gratifying to report that Walter Sullivan brought all of these pastoral qualities to bear on the sexual abuse crisis as it unfolded in the Richmond Diocese. But such was not the case. Theroux dedicates one chapter, “A Shadow on the Cathedral,” to Sullivan’s relationship with the priests of the diocese, and his response to sexual predators among these priests. According to one member of the diocesan sexual review board, “He was no better and no worse than most of the bishops in this country. But he certainly was no hero. I’d put him at right about fifty percent.” Although Theroux reflects on possible reasons for his muted response, none of them will console victims of sexual abuse by a priest. It is indeed a shadow.
Walter Sullivan died on December 11, 2012, shortly before this book—begun as an oral history and happily resulting in this full-fledged biography—was published. He had taken to heart the words spoken at his episcopal ordination: “Receive the book of Gospels whose herald you now are; believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach....” Good advice for bishops—and for all readers of this biography.