Though I had visited him in the hospital last week, yesterday I felt a sense of urgency in saying goodbye to my old friend, Bishop Walter Sullivan. As I drove across Richmond to his home I reflected on the last time I had seen him.
The cancer had taken its toll on his body but not on his sweet spirit ("A Sweet, Sweet Spirit," a classic Gospel song, was the Bishop's favorite hymn). Despite having received the grim prognosis just a few days before, the Bishop had retained his incomparable sense of joie de vivre. A lifelong basketball fan, the Bishop asked me how the VCU Rams were doing lately, and was sorely disappointed to have missed their recent game against Duke. In a world in which genuine conversation is so rare, the Bishop turned to my wife, who always seemed to hold his attention more than I did, and asked how her semester was going at the high school where she teaches Spanish. Last night I had asked Fabiola to reflect on her own experience with one of the great princes of peace of our times. This morning as she left for work she said, "You know, nobody in Richmond made me feel more welcome, both as a newcomer to the city and as an immigrant."
I approached his picturesque white cottage, whose close proximity to the Presbyterian seminary evokes his tireless efforts on behalf of ecumenism and interfaith relations, and was disappointed to see the sign on the door saying that visitors weren't being received. Not wishing to disturb his family, whom I suspected were watching over him in his final hours, I left a Virgin of Guadalupe bracelet at his doorstep. Today is the Virgin's feast day, and I thought it would be a perfect expression of my appreciation and admiration for a prelate who had not only made the Church more welcoming to Latin American immigrants but to all sorts of groups who previously had been at the margins of Catholic life in Richmond. I remember how surprised I was to see a large portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart when I came for an interview at VCU. The city's Latino population is less than 10 percent, yet the patroness of both Mexico and the Philippines welcomes worshipers of all nationalities at one of the country's most beautiful cathedrals. Shortly after arriving back home I received the news that the Bishop had succumbed to his illness.
Had the VCU chair in Catholic Studies been named after a number of other bishops, I might have thought twice about accepting the position. However, when I learned that it would bear the title of a titan in the never-ending struggles for peace and justice, I wasted no time in drafting my letter of acceptance. During my college years in the mid-1980s I had gotten involved in the Central American peace movement and became interested in Liberation Theology. With his unwavering opposition to American intervention in armed conflicts around the world, Bishop Sullivan had earned my great admiration as a true prince of peace. But outstanding contributions to world peace are only part of his legacy. Reacting to his own ostracism as a child of divorced parents in the 1930s and '40s, Walter Sullivan refashioned a diocese based on inclusiveness. In Richmond gays, lesbians, immigrants and impoverished parishioners were welcomed by a bishop who sought to construct a truly catholic Catholicism. His sweet, sweet spirit endures.