If someone truly wants to understand R. Sargent Shriver, all they need to do is reflect on his last public appearance three months before his death at age 95.
Although weakened by his long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, the founder of the Peace Corps and other projects for the needy attended the first Archdiocese of Washington “White Mass” for children and adults with disabilities. One last time, he stood with those touched by the Special Olympics and the work of his wife, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
“Sarge’s knowledge of God’s love … 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,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, at Shriver’s funeral Mass last week in Potomac, Md. “He spoke not from political expediency or correctness, but from an abiding sense of conviction.”
The statesman’s life was shaped by many of the 20th century’s most powerful forces, from the Great Depression in his childhood to World War II combat at Guadalcanal. His marriage took him deep into the Kennedy family, which launched his work, yet limited his political career.
Shriver took on global poverty for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and helped lead the domestic War on Poverty for President Lyndon Johnson. Many of the projects he helped launch live on — such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Legal Services, Foster Grandparents and Upward Bound.
Those who worked with Shriver, noted former President Bill Clinton at the funeral, were left asking this question: “Could anybody be as good as he seemed to be? Come on now. … Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now.”
Where did Shriver’s drive come from? Son Mark Shriver stressed that his father’s motivations were never strictly political, but were rooted in the first item on the daily calendar of his life. Wherever he went, whether with family or on business, the first question he asked upon arrival was the time and location of the nearest morning Mass. The Shriver patriarch was buried with his rosary in his fingers.
“Daddy was joyful ’til the day he died and I think that joy was deeply rooted in his love affair with God,” said Mark Shriver. “Daddy loved God and God loved him right back. … Daddy let go. God was in control and, oh, what a relationship they had.”While his Catholicism helped Shriver as an activist and volunteer, it marginalized him in some politic circles. As the years passed, son Timothy Shriver said he could see that his father’s commitments made many people uncomfortable. At times, his faith “made him an outlier. He was too public with all of that spirituality.”
In 1972, Shriver stepped in and became his party’s emergency choice as Sen. George McGovern’s running mate in a long-shot run race for the White House. It helped that Shriver was a political progressive and a traditional Catholic. Still, there hasn’t been another pro-life Democrat on the national ticket since Shriver.
During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, both Sargent and Eunice Shriver joined several other prominent Democrats in signing a public document that openly rejected their party’s stance on abortion.
“To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license,” it stated. “What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth. … We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn.”
Thus, Shriver’s human family included the unborn and the mentally handicapped, AIDS patients in Africa and the urban poor, abandoned children and the elderly who need medical care.
“No one can deny that his liberal Catholicism was a Christian politics: Admirable, comprehensive, and at the test, consistent,” noted Catholic writer Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist and blogger for the New York Times.
“That test was abortion, where Shriver was one of the few Great Society liberals to remain a pro-life liberal as well. … Together with his wife, Eunice, he endured as the embodiment of a liberal road not taken on that issue. For that, as for everything he did in public life, he will be sorely missed.”