By Cardinal Donald Wuerl -- January 22, 2011
To the children and grandchildren of Sargent Shriver, in a most particular way to Robert and Melisa, Maria and Arnold, Tim and Linda, Mark and Jeannie, Anthony and Alina and all your children, again my sympathy - personally and in the name of the Church of Washington.
The life of Robert Sargent Shriver was not just one of accomplishment as Husband, Father, Friend, Public Servant and Founder. The life of Sargent Shriver was a testimony to belief in God and how faith must engage the world. His life bears particular relevance to the struggles of our time to make this world a better place.
He fought injustice and poverty his whole life. He worked with religious leaders and so many others to speak out for peace, economic opportunity and particularly and most eloquently for the underprivileged.
He sought to live the words of Isaiah in our first reading, releasing those bound unjustly, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own (cf Is 58:6-7).
Much will be written about his War on Poverty. Around the world lives were changed by the Peace Corps not only in the people who were served but, most importantly, in the hearts of young Americans who gathered more from his vision than they ever could sew.
With his beloved Eunice he founded Special Olympics with a vision of the dignity of the human person that is more relevant today than when they first began holding camps for special needs youth in their back yard in Rockville, Maryland.
Today so many children with special needs have a chance to run and bowl and swim and play and laugh. He believed every life has value, is beautiful and should be respected, cherished, protected.
Sargent Shriver was a man for this age. He perceived and addressed some of our deepest challenges before many fully understood the problems. His passion for truth flowed from his knowledge of Jesus who is the way, the truth and life. He is buried holding in his hands the rosary he prayed every day.
Sarge was a man for this age not because he was of this age but because he was what this age needs - a good man who believed in God, a courageous man who was true to himself and a faithful man who let others know they are all children of a loving God.
He has been described as man who "knew the glamour of the spotlight, but worked with those in the shadows." He believed and followed the revelation that the Lord gave his life that we might have life and have it abundantly - to the full.
In today's Gospel, we read that when Martha and Mary lost their brother Lazarus, and Jesus came to visit, Martha said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Jesus reassured her, "Your brother will rise." Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she replied. "I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God." (cf. Jn 11: 17-27) At the core of what defined the life and formed the choices and motivated the responses of Sargent Shriver was his answer to that question posed by Jesus, "I am the resurrection and the life. ... Do you believe this?" He clearly said, "Yes." Sarge's life was a profound manifestation that Jesus' promises would be fulfilled and that he too could merit eternal life.
The powerful influence of his father and his father's dear friend Cardinal James Gibbons led Sarge to seek a close relationship with Christ early in his life. He wrote, "I was deeply impressed by our Lord's teaching that we should not worry about what we should wear or eat or where we should live. He told us that we should trust Him and His Father who cares lovingly for all His creatures. So I decided to trust my future welfare to Him. I just decided to do the best I could every day and leave the next day to Jesus Christ." Sargent Shriver was a man for this age because from that knowledge of God and the promise of eternal life flowed his public life, his commitment to the poor and his devotion the vision of a better world.
As a believer, Sargent Shriver was convinced that our hope for a better world is rooted in our faith that God will help us make this happen. Faith was the source of his perennial optimism and his social activism. He was convinced that if we work hard enough and believe strongly enough God will be with us to bring about that world of peace, justice, understanding, wisdom, kindness, respect and love that we call his kingdom coming to be on earth.
I recall the words of our Holy Father when he visited here in Washington in April of 2008.
Addressing religious leaders of many faiths, Pope Benedict said "a united society can indeed arise from a plurality of peoples - "E pluribus unum": "out of many, one" - provided that all recognize religious liberty as a basic civil right." For Sargent Shriver, religious faith was not only a basic human right but the fuel that stoked a life of self-giving to effort to improve nearly every aspect of our society and, indeed, our world.
In 1963 Sargent Shriver addressed the graduating class of Fordham University. In light of the Second Vatican Council he told the graduates that the "Separation of Church and State does not mean the divorce of spiritual values from secular affairs." Faith convictions, moral values and defining religious experiences of life necessarily sustain the vitality of the whole society. We can never stand alone, disconnected, uprooted from our convictions and our faith values.
With the kind permission of his children, I would like to quote Sargent Shriver's own words written to his family. He recognized his primary vocation was husband and father. He wrote to his beloved Eunice, "I have tried my best to fulfill our vows of marriage, to honor and respect you, to cherish you and to raise up God-fearing and God-loving children." Their wedding anniversaries were both celebrations of achievement and renewals of commitment.
Sarge's knowledge of God's love as experienced in his practice of the faith and lived in the love of his family was the structure that supported his public life. From this faith, hope and love flowed his thirst for justice and peace and the courage to speak for those who had no voice. He spoke not from political expediency or correctness, but from an abiding sense of conviction.
Everyone in this church has multiple images of Sargent Shriver. I would like briefly to share two. One is from our meetings many years ago as we sat around the table at my residence, Sarge, Eunice, some diocesan staff people and myself, working out the details of what became a nationally recognized faith formation program for children with special needs. He did not need to say much.
Eunice was very articulate. But when he spoke he communicated very clearly that what we were doing was not an option, but a mission.
The other image is of him at a Mass at Saint Matthew's Cathedral just three months ago - a Mass for persons with special needs recognizing the gift they are to the Church and to society. Sargent Shriver already demonstrated the effects of age and illness, but he was there. One of his last public acts was to stand with the people with whom he and his wife Eunice had for so long stood. His presence and the love and care lavished on him by his children said more than any homily could ever do.
As I conclude, I want to speak to the grandchildren of Sargent and Eunice. You are his heirs.
Your grandfather has left you an extraordinary legacy. You may have only known your grandfather in his later years. Make sure you take the time to study his life and let his faith be a model for your own.
Yesterday afternoon when we all met at your grandfather's house, many of you were coming directly from school and your lessons. Add now to your lessons of life what your grandfather teaches you as he taught so many others.
Ask your parents to tell you stories and read what he has written so that you may remember the heritage that is now yours. You will not be judged on what you own or who you know. The legacy that your grandfather has left for you is a clear witness that your success ultimately will be judged on how well you have loved your family, your country, the poor and, above all, your God.
When you think of him and rejoice in the heritage he has given to you, pray that you will always have the courage, like your grandparents, always to live your faith both in private and in public.
By this measure, I believe your grandfather will be judged well.
For the faithful disciple, Jesus awaits with the same reassurance he offered Martha. Death be not proud. Your victory is fleeting. We hold firmly to the truth. "I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus tells us, "whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live." And so, in the same faith we pray: Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.