Sargent Shriver: Living the faith

Sargent Shriver devoted his life to the Gospel's imperatives of charity

January 23, 2011|By Patrick Whelan and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

The country lost a very devout and public Catholic when Sargent Shriver passed away this past week, with a tremendous outpouring of affection evident at his funeral yesterday in Potomac's Our Lady of Mercy Church. He believed deeply in non-violence and social justice and was involved in launching a dizzying array of programs that put those beliefs into action. Between the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics, which was a lifelong labor of love with his wife Eunice, he touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

He was a man of many friends, and often praised. Sylvia Panetta, Director of the Panetta Institute in Monterey, Calif., said of him, "He really understood the concept of public service to the core. He carried that societal responsibility with great distinction."

One small tale may serve to describe the man and the legacy he left behind. In 1984, a distinguished Boston attorney named John Daley began tracking down the 70 members of his team of returned Peace Corps volunteers who trained together and traveled to Tanganyika, Africa in the early days of the program. Mr. Daley formulated a questionnaire that asked lots of typical questions of all these adventurous souls: Where do you live? What are you doing professionally? Tell us about your family.

To Mr. Daley's surprise, they received good wishes from President Julius Nyerere of what was by then the country of Tanzania, praising the generosity of spirit that these volunteers had carried such a great distance across the globe. But even more surprising was the response Mr. Daley received from the first director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver. In his own handwriting, "Sarge" offered a touching summary of his own life:

"You have asked me to write about what I have been doing in the 20 years from 1964-1984. PHEW! I have been leading a life reminiscent of a whirling dervish in the marketplace of Isfahan or Tabriz. I have been involved in working on or starting up the Peace Corps; Head Start; the Job Corps; VISTA; Upward Bound; Legal Services; Foster Grandparents; Green Thumb; Neighborhood Health Services; Special Olympics; Medical Research Centers at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Einstein, focused on problems of the mentally retarded; and, most important, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University where we are pursuing 'an ethic of life'…

"I have also had the joy of two years in Paris jousting with deGaulle, learning French, and eating better than any and all Peace Corps Volunteers…

"I fitted in a four-month effort to win the White House with George McGovern. Like George, I can say that we would rather be us than "them guys what beat us."…Through this whirling dervish period, my five children have grown up. I hope all Peace Corps Volunteers watch my daughter, Maria, on CBS Morning News. My eldest son, Robert, practices law. My son, Mark, terrorizes the rugby fields of the East. My son, Anthony, is the cynosure of all female eyes. My son, Timothy, ranks #1 in the hearts of all the poor in New Haven, Connecticut.

"My wife has survived all of this. So have I, but only because of all the volunteers who have helped us. … I hope everything has been equally joyous for all [returning Peace Corps volunteers]. You are among the ones who have made life full and wholesome and upbeat for me.

"Sargent Shriver"

As it turned out, these 70 volunteers were surprised and delighted when, in 1966, as their period of service was ending, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy (Kathleen's parents) stopped to visit as they traveled through Africa. Like his Kennedy in-laws, Sargent devoted his life to a set of higher ideals, very much motivated by his Catholic faith. In the process, he deeply influenced the lives of those 70 young idealists from middle America who returned to become influential in their own families and in 26 different states and nine countries.

Sarge had a boundless faith. Others may speak about faith, but he lived it as he devoted his life to the Gospel imperatives of feeding the hungry, clothing the unclothed, visiting prisoners and welcoming the stranger. He accomplished what he did with unmatched enthusiasm and a deeply loving heart.

Dr. Patrick Whelan is a pediatric specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and president of Catholic Democrats. Former Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the niece of Sargent and Eunice Shriver.

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