- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

RICHMOND — Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, the longest-serving head of the Richmond Roman Catholic diocese, did not look like a man about to retire.

Shaking hands and taking photographs with parishioners leaving Richmond’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on Sunday, Bishop Sullivan wore the easy smile of someone who loves his job. His goodbyes were the type given to people you expect to see next week, not those reserved for the final days of 29 years on the job.

Bishop Sullivan was required to send his letter of resignation to Pope John Paul II on Tuesday, as prescribed of bishops when they turn 75 years old. Although the pope can still technically reject the resignation, Bishop Sullivan has already taken his farewell tour through the diocese, which covers all of Virginia except the northern part of the state.

Bishop Sullivan was the 11th bishop to serve as head of the sprawling Richmond diocese since its founding in 1820. He will be remembered as one of the more progressive leaders in the Catholic Church — a man who sparked controversy by opening his churches to homosexuals, condemning wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, and speaking out against the death penalty.

A holdout from the liberal thinking in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s, Bishop Sullivan has been questioned recently for moving too far away from the Vatican’s central positions on church services and the priesthood.

The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty, a Catholic priest who teaches history at the University of Virginia, told the Virginian-Pilot that Bishop Sullivan’s successor would almost have to be “right of center.”

But Bishop Sullivan said his only motivation in 29 years as bishop, and 50 years of service in the church, has been inclusion.

“The word Catholic means there’s room for everyone,” he said after the confirmation service Sunday. “We are united in our different cultures by our common faith.”

Women have found a greater role in the church under Bishop Sullivan. There are female lectors and Eucharistic ministers, and seven of the diocese’s 145 parishes are run by women.

Bishop Sullivan also has reached out to minorities and other groups. The Richmond diocese has 24 advisory committees representing youth, women, homosexuals, blacks and senior citizens — all of which he consulted regularly.

The Commission on Sexual Minorities was the first official attempt by a Catholic diocese to reach out to homosexual parishioners when it was established in 1977. While it was not instantly accepted by many in the church, there are now about 40 to 50 commissions like it across the country.

“I guess he did get some flak over the years, but he kind of shrugs it all off because we know we’re doing the right thing,” said Brother Cosmas Rubencamp, a member of the commission since its inception.

Bishop Sullivan’s outreach extended to other faiths, as well. He donated $50,000 of diocesan funds to the Virginia Holocaust Museum when it was being built, and he now sits on the museum’s board of directors.

Realizing that a great service could be met in Hampton Roads, Bishop Sullivan also helped found the Church of the Holy Apostles in 1977, a joint parish of the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses.

Co-pastors of the church conduct services at side-by-side altars — one for Catholics, the other for Episcopalians. The Right Rev. C. Charles Vach De, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, said the idea was popular among military families who came from different backgrounds and religions.

“They felt they could attend church together without giving something up,” Bishop Vach De said.

It was typical of Bishop Sullivan’s ecumenical approach, he said.

Bishop Sullivan “is in the best sense of the word brotherly. I think he’s truly a man of God,” Bishop Vach De said.

But Bishop Sullivan’s tenure was not without its detractors. He is a vociferous opponent of military conflicts, saying in a statement in March that he deeply regretted “that our nation’s leaders have determined that war is necessary to resolve our differences with Iraq.”

That, along with the black ribbons handed out by a diocesan office to protest the war, angered many Catholics with military backgrounds. To the bishop, though, the peace movement goes back to his central tenet of bringing people together.

“In uniting, he also divides, but that’s the double-edged sword of being a bishop,” Brother Rubencamp said.

“Some people don’t appreciate being united with folks they can’t stand, or can’t love.”

The last year has brought criticism of another type. Bishop Sullivan was chastised for reacting too slowly to the national sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and not admitting that the Richmond diocese had had priests accused of molesting children in the 1970s and ‘80s until after victims came forward.

Three priests were ousted from the diocese in the wake of the national Catholic organization adopting new rules for dealing with accusations. Bishop Sullivan acknowledges that perhaps the church was “too silent” in the past, but he believes that good will come from the pain.

“It’s been very hurtful, of course,” he said. “We’re all the better to get it behind us.”

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