Today is the feast of All Saints. I have to say I relate more to All Souls Day when we pray for those in purgatory. I’ve always counted on purgatory… and liked the idea that difficult times here on earth could count as “time off” purgatory. I figure some of my time working for the bishops’ conference and raising teenagers has to count.
However, the idea of saints in our midst is comforting as well. I had the honor of meeting Mother Teresa who has been canonized and Pope John Paul II who will be canonized next year. I met Dorothy Day and hope the efforts of Cardinal Dolan and others will succeed in having her declared a saint. I believe I know some unrecognized saints who live the Gospel with great humility, courage and self-sacrifice. They will never be recognized by the church, but who the church makes saints matters because it lifts up extraordinary people with virtues, choices and holiness that the rest of us should respect, admire and imitate.
In January of 2011, Sargent Shriver died after a long and good life of extraordinary service, courage and faith. I believe he was a saint in our midst and the church should consider whether he should be formally declared a saint because of the virtues and holiness he demonstrated in his public and private life. Sargent Shriver was not a monk or hermit, not a mystic or cleric. He was a husband and father, a public servant and friend of the poor, a devout Catholic and a man of secular power. In the words of his son Mark’s wonderful book, Sarge Shriver was “a good man” and a great model for the rest of us.
He is not your typical saint. He was wealthy man who had a passion for the poor, calling others to serve “the least of these” in the poorest parts of our nation and the most desperate places on earth. He was a Democratic politician who stood up for all human life, even when his party seemed to make peace with abortion on demand. He was an amazing father, writing his five children daily letters sharing his love and hope for them. With his wife Eunice, he reached out to those with disabilities and showed the world through the Special Olympics that they had dignity and an important place in society. A man of many commitments and high office, he made time for daily Eucharist. Many saints are “virgins and martyrs”; Sarge was neither, but a proud husband and father of a houseful of kids who continue the ethic of service they learned at home. He was not a martyr, but he bore the burdens of debilitating Alzheimer's with great dignity.
In the halls of power and among those with no clout, Sarge treated everybody with dignity, like they were children of God because he believed they were. He could talk theology with anyone, but his faith relied on his simple trust in God and a belief that as his brother-in-law President Kennedy declared, "Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own." Saints need miracles and the Peace Corps was a secular miracle, calling forth service and sacrifice from generations of young Americans. He stood for civil rights before it was trendy, for the rights of people with disabilities before many of us understood they had the same rights we do. He was a happy warrior in losing causes, a doomed vice-presidential race and a presidential campaign that never took off. He believed there were worse things than standing up for what you believed and losing an election. Losing your soul to win would be worse. He stood against war and for life, for the poor and against injustice.
One of the questions we ask at our new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life is “where are the Sarge Shrivers of today?” Who are the Catholic lay men and woman who sees faith as an asset, not a burden; public life as a vocation not war by other means; who stand against the tides to defend the weak, the unborn, the poor and vulnerable. They are there, but there will be more of them if we find ways to lift up the lives, faith, hope and love of people like Sargent Shriver. He was a loving husband, a caring father, a faithful Catholic who placed the Eucharist at the center of his life and a rosary in his pocket, a public servant committed to the poor, a man who treated others with dignity and died with hope in the face of terrible illness. Sounds like “a good man” as his son wrote. Sounds to me like a saint for our times.