Bishop Walter Sullivan was a special friend of Appalachia, and a proud member of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA). Though the Diocese of Richmond, VA spans 535 miles in length, he delighted in visiting the far southwestern part where a myriad of vowed religious women and men together with lay people served in social ministry up the hollows and in the small towns. Frequently he would make the distinction between the “true” church of doctrine and the “real” church of service, pointing to the various people of ministry gathered around him.
For years Bp. Walter was CCA’s bishop liaison with the USCCB. In the last conversation I had with him a week before he died, he explicitly asked about CCA, solicitous that it survive. He always felt CCA’s prophetic voice was essential for justice in the mountains.
Just after he retired in 2003 Bp. Walter asked CCA to organize a Bishops’ Tour of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). He invited two Appalachian bishops along with their staffs to witness the destruction of the mountains and hear the stories of the people. Although the flyover in small planes was cancelled because of gusty winds, the tour observed the high walls and dust from the road. Afterwards, CCA provided a forum for discussion. The coal industry sent representatives to plead its case for MTR. I remember writing about the experience: “The bishops who normally avoid alienating donors felt no call to a prophetic stance, and remained noncommittal about MTR. The one bishop (i.e. Bp. Walter), who clearly became an anti-MTR advocate, was already retired.”
Besides being outspoken, Bp. Walter was a bridge builder. When the USCCB in 1986 was writing its economic pastoral, “Economic Justice for All,” he convened diocesan meetings after each of the three drafts in Richmond for academics, business people and activists. I remember fighting with the business folks over various social issues in the document, but by the third draft I tempered my idealism and made friends with the opposition. Later when Bp. Walter scheduled a presentation on the economics pastoral in Appalachia, a business leader traveled 6 hours and stayed with me in my bungalow in St. Paul, VA. Bp. Walter thought it akin to Adam Smith visiting Karl Marx, and he laughed approvingly about it.
With his death comes the end of a certain Catholic era in Appalachia. Bp. Walter was the last surviving bishop who signed both Appalachian pastoral letters, “This Land Is Home To Me,” and “At Home In the Web of Life.” Indeed, he initiated and championed the second pastoral. Both pastorals sparked a serious reflection about poverty, energy and sustainability.
He was the bishop most faithful to a collaborative model of ministry in the mountains, promoting social justice when others retreated to the safety of institutional concerns. He was the spirit of Vatican II in our midst, encouraging all the progressive, inclusive and balanced concepts that emanated from the Council. In short, Bp. Walter was our beloved partner in Appalachian ministry.
Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, is the director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and works against mountaintop removal. He was the recipient of the Pax Christi USA’s Teacher of Peace Award in 2007.