Just the other day I was looking for a quote that I recalled was in Mark Shriver’s book on his dad, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver. I ended up re-reading again most of his touching reflection on a remarkable person – a good man. What comes through the book is both Mark’s affection for his father and why that regard is so well placed – his father’s faith and commitment to doing good.
Our culture often seems to value “greatness” over goodness and foster self-absorption in direct conflict with the Christian mission to serve others. Sargent Shriver, who died from Alzheimer’s in 2011, lived a life that challenged this ethos every day. His faith in God was the source of the hope, joy and love that imbued every aspect of his life, from his relationships with his family and friends to his activism on behalf of the poor and marginalized of society, as his son, Mark, reflected on and took to heart in the course of writing, A Good Man.
Sargent’s life was a testimony to belief in God and how faith must engage the world. With a vision of the dignity of the human person, he and his beloved Eunice founded the Special Olympics. This appreciation for the value of every human life is sadly lacking today as an estimated 90 percent of children with special needs are terminated before they have a chance to run and bowl and swim and laugh and play. Sargent pioneered the Peace Corps, and lives around the world were changed – not only for those who were served, but especially for those young Americans whose hearts were changed by sharing in Sarge’s vision. His leadership of the War on Poverty was driven by his taking to heart Christ’s call to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless.
In A Good Man, Mark Shriver quotes a line from a 1994 speech his father delivered at Yale University: “Break your mirrors! Yes, indeed – shatter the glass. In our society, which is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.” This admonition was typical of a man who saw clearly the effects on our society of individualism run amok.
Sarge was also ahead of his time in challenging the secularism that has increasingly overtaken our culture. In 1963, he addressed the graduating class of Fordham University saying, “Separation of Church and State does not mean the divorce of spiritual values from secular affairs….”
In 1966, Sargent told the Xavier University Alumni Association, “Just three or four years ago, it was practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group. People said there was that wall between Church and State. But we said that wall was put there to keep government out of the pulpit, not to keep the clergy away from the poor! That wall protects belief and even disbelief. It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, injustice. That is common territory – not exclusively yours or mine but everybody’s! With no wall between! And so we said, Reverend Mr. Jones, or Father Kelly, or Rabbi Hirsh, if you’re not afraid to be seen in our company, we’re not afraid to be seen in yours – because we are all about Our Father’s business.”
These words are even more relevant today as the Church and people of faith face increasing encroachment on our right to free expression of religious belief through service to those in need. For example, we are told by the government that we are not religious if we hire and serve people of other faiths; therefore we must provide our employees with insurance coverage for drugs and procedures that violate our beliefs or pay multi-million dollar fines each year. Sarge saw some of our deepest challenges before we fully understood the problems ourselves.
Sarge’s primary vocation was that of husband and father. His 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.
Mark Shriver’s tribute to his father, Sargent, is a testament to the fact that goodness in God’s eyes is far more enduring than “greatness” in the eyes of the world.