Monday, June 18, 2012

God in the Din Around Us

Amidst political rancor it is refreshing to read Mark Shriver’s A Good Man, about his father Sargent Shriver, founding head of the Peace Corps. Sarge was unapologetically Catholic without wearing religion on his sleeve. He rooted his life in prayer and attended Mass daily.

            His marriage to Eunice Kennedy made him part of the Kennedy clan, where at times philandering seemed to signify the good life. Yet no hint of scandal touched Sarge. And at his funeral after hearing more than one person speak of Sarge as “a good man,” the scandal plagued Bill Clinton looked down on the coffin and said, “Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now.”

            Sarge reflected a grace-filled life and maintained a contemplative vision. He saw God in a sunrise, in his wife, and in his children and grandchildren. In the glitz of Kennedy campaigns, he was the calming presence. In the devastation after the assassination of President Kennedy, he was the man behind the funeral that made a mourning country one nation under God.

            Mark spoke of his father’s funeral 18 months ago, where Sarge seemed to speak from death as friends and family eulogized him. From a media perspective, the church peaks in funeral liturgies, especially in its poignant prayer, “May the angels lead you into Paradise. May the martyrs greet you ….” Sarge’s funeral drove home the fact of that afterlife.

            Two moments stand out in the book for me. One was mention of the Choice Program, an effort Mark Shriver started with small government and foundation grants for youthful offenders moving into the work force. As he struggled to keep Choice afloat, he met a priest who offered help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Mark worried about separation of Church and State. Sarge told him the separation was not to keep the Church from the poor. Mark later found a speech his father gave on the subject in 1966. He recalled the words:

       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! The 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.”

       The words made me long for someone to deliver that message today when some would trample religious rights by requiring all employers, including religious institutions, to pay for services that violate Church teachings, such as female sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs.

       Sarge’s faith sustained him in times that would have emotionally paralyzed another. His 1972 loss on the McGovern-Shriver Presidential ticket, when 49 states opted instead for Richard Nixon, was devastating. Afterwards, Sarge put his arms on the shoulders of George McGovern and his crying wife Eleanor and said, "You know, George, we lost 49 states but we never lose our souls." It's a worthy message, not just for politicians, but for all.

            Mark's book is an easy read and captures happy and hard moments with his father who developed Alzheimer's, from which he died. Sarge Shriver saw faith not as a burden or set of rules but a way to live life fully. He practiced everyday Christianity, and it enriched his life and the lives of all those around him.

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