With a heavy heart, we report the passing of Bishop Walter Sullivan, retired Ordinary of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. As a past president of Pax Christi USA, Bishop Sullivan is best known for his work on peace issues. However, no less significant is Bishop Sullivan’s contributions to LGBT equality. Here are a few of his accomplishments:
- Establishing the Sexual Minorities Commission, the first diocesan outreach to LGBT people, back in 1976
- Writing the introduction to A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church (edited by New Ways Ministry co-founder, Father Robert Nugent, SDS).
- Hosting the second national convention of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian/Gay Ministries in 1996. (The organization is now called the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry.)
- In1997, he hosted a Mass for LGBT people and their families and friends at the diocesan cathedral. He opened the liturgy by saying, ”You belong here. It’s about time somebody says that to you.”
Also in 1976, Bishop Sullivan spoke out in support of lesbian/gay civil rights, stating in the Richmond News Leader:
“The issue before our community and the [human rights] commission, however, is not the morality of a person’s sexual orientation, but rather a person’s rights and protection under the law. We believe that a person’s sexual orientation, whether it is one we approve or disapprove, is not a proper ground for depriving that person of the basic rights and protections that belong to all human beings. “
From a statement such as this, we can see that Bishop Sullivan was one of the first Catholic bishops to apply the church’s social justice and human rights traditions to the LGBT community.
Bishop Sullivan was not averse to applying that tradition to church structures, too. In his introduction to A Challenge to Love, he stated:
“. . . we cannot remain satisfied that, once we have clearly articulated the official Church position on homosexuality, nothing else remains to be done in the area of pastoral care for homosexual people and education on this topic for the larger human community, including the families and friends of homosexual people. This is especially true in those cases where the teaching of the Church itself has been presented in such a way that it has been the source or occasion of some of the pain and alienation that many homosexual Catholics experience. We cannot overlook those injustices, including rejection, hostility, or indifference on the part of Christians, that have resulted in a denial of respect or of full participation in the community for homosexual people. We must examine our own hearts and consciences and know that each of us stands in need of real conversion in this area. “
Bishop Sullivan was a good friend of New Ways Ministry over the years. When he first established the Sexual Minorities Commission, he invited our co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Nugent, to lead the first retreat for the commission members.
I had the good fortune to meet Bishop Sullivan on several occasions, both in the context of peace activities and LGBT ministry. He always had a warm smile and a joke or two to share. His good humor and expansive spirit was remembered by others in a National Catholic Reporter article about his life and his death:
“Sullivan will be remembered as ‘a happy and tireless warrior for justice and peace,’ said retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston, a former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
” ‘He truly believed in the priesthood of the laity and their essential role in the life and mission of the church,’ Fiorenza told NCR.
“Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, a longtime observer of the Catholic scene in the country, concurred.
” ‘It would be hard to find anyone like Sullivan in the American hierarchy today,’ Reese said. ‘He was a liberal bishop passionately committed to social justice and peace.’ “
Though, as Fr. Reese notes, there are no other current bishops who share Bishop Sullivan’s passion and spirit, those of us who mourn his passing can take comfort in the fact that we now have a new saint in heaven to intercede for us in areas of peace, church reform, and LGBT equality and justice.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry