My friend Pat McNamara tells a story about being at St. Patrick’s Cathedral about 12 years ago. It was the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, and they had this large portrait of her hanging to one side, over a side altar. After mass, as Pat was getting ready to leave, he noticed an elderly man praying very fervently before the picture. He was distinguished looking, with a shock of white hair. Pat thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place him. It wasn’t until later that he realized who it was.
It was Sargent Shriver.
I’m afraid a lot of people today don’t realize the impact Sargent Shriver had – or what his significance was to a certain moment in American history. When he died two weeks ago, at the age of 95, after struggling nearly a decade with Alzheimer’s, the obituaries lauded his public work, his marriage to John Kennedy’s sister, and mentioned his famous daughter, Maria, and son-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Shriver was seen as one of the last connections to the era of Camelot. But the sum of his parts was so much greater than that.
If you want to know how much greater, just read through the Beatitudes that we just heard in Matthew’s gospel. Here we have a succinct job description of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. More than any other public figure I can think of, Sargent Shriver embodied those ideals – with joy, with idealism, with faith. And he did it without sacrificing his Catholic identity. He and his wife Eunice attended mass every day. He was his faith, and his faith was him. It was so deeply ingrained in him that his daughter Maria said, of her father’s debilitating dementia: “He could pray the rosary perfectly. But he couldn’t remember who I was.”
Well, the world should remember who Sargent Shriver was.
The gospel tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Shriver was the founding director of the Peace Corps – nothing less, really, than a secular missionary society, with a mission of encouraging dialogue among nations and helping the poor in developing parts of the world. As recently as 1994, Sargent Shriver called on graduates at Yale, his alma mater, to be makers of peace. “You’ll get more from being a peacemaker than a warrior,” he told them, adding “I’ve been both, and I know from experience.”
The gospel also tells us: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
He was a champion of racial justice – and devoted his time and considerable resources to helping the weak, the vulnerable, the outcast. He offered mercy to those who needed it most. He helped set up and run the Special Olympics, which gave dignity and honor to those with mental disabilities.
The gospel tells us: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like so many members of the Kennedy family, Sargent Shriver mourned again and again and again – private grief expressed so often at public funerals.
And the gospel assures us: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
When being pro-life became unfashionable in his own political party, Sargent Shriver continued to speak out against abortion, and stood his ground. When he ran for vice president with George McGovern in 1972, he was the last pro-life Democratic candidate on a presidential ticket – at least, the last so far. His stance may have ended his political career. But it was a price he was willing to pay. He would not compromise his ideals, or his Catholic faith.
None of this is to say that Sargent Shriver was a saint. But at a time when people are willing to compromise, to bend to political expediency, to dwell in what the pope has called “moral relativism,” Sargent Shriver didn’t. He stood for something. And he strove to make the world just a little bit better than it was – to make it more merciful, more compassionate, more just, more peaceful.
That’s the great message of the Beatitudes. And, in a nutshell, that is what it means to be a Christian.
There’s something else worth noting about this gospel. Last week, you’ll remember, Jesus went in search of disciples in the villages and along the seashore. And it was out there, in the wider world, where he worked his miracles, and taught his followers. And so it is here. This famous passage takes place, not in a temple or synagogue, but on a mountaintop – out in the world. We will discover again and again that THAT is where Christ’s great work was accomplished.
And so it was with Sargent Shriver. For all his devotion, his daily attendance at mass, he knew that the work of Christianity unfolds out in the world. The man who prayed so fervently at St. Patrick’s Cathedral lived his faith outside the cathedral doors – in the corridors of power, on campaign buses, traveling the world for the cause of peace.
And that too should stand as a powerful reminder.
All the beautiful words about being “blessed” will mean nothing if we do not live them, moment by moment, day by day, in the work we do, in the encounters we have, in the choices we make.
That is our call.
Sargent Shriver understood that, and lived that.