With the death of Bishop Walter Sullivan, the U.S. Catholic Church has lost another of its great Vatican II prophetic bishops. I remember the first time I had the honor of encountering Bishop Sullivan. In the early 1980s I was a young campus minister working at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Student Center and Parish in Ames, Iowa. I was embroiled in a standoff with the IRS over my stand as a war tax resister and the parish council at St. Thomas was refusing to cooperate with the IRS demand that the parish garnished my wages to pay the taxes I owed.
At that time the IRS was increasing the pressure by placing a lien on the parish and threatening legal action. The position of the parish council was that the government could not force them to cooperate in violating my conscience and that if the IRS had an issue with me they should deal with me directly. The drama, that lasted almost a year, became a national issue as the IRS continued its pressure and the parish council continued to refuse to cooperate.
At that time I was desperate to find support for the stand taken by my parish council and to raise money for a possible legal defense. That is when someone told me about Bishop Walter Sullivan. They said I should write to him. When I did I received a wonderful letter of support for the parish council and a personal check to help with legal costs.
I could not believe that this man—who had never personally met me –was willing to stand with me and my parish in this struggle against the U.S. government. Because of Bishops Sullivan I knew that we were not alone and that support for war tax resistance existed in the Church.
Eventually I got to know Walter (how he preferred to be addressed in Pax Christi circles) when I came to work at Pax Christi USA. His personal warmth and southern charm made me feel right at home and part of the family. At his core Walter was a southern gentleman in the best sense of that tradition. He took a personal interest in everyone he met and it did not take long before you were thought of as part of his extended family.
Walter’s coat of arms motto was “To Unite All in Christ” and I think it truly reflects his ministry and his peacemaking vocation. For Walter, everyone was a part of the family. This is why he resisted all war and violence. Walter could not remain silent when members of the family were hungry or homeless or unemployed, sick or in prison. If everybody was not doing well than the family was not doing well.
I will miss Walter but I know that heaven is a better place because of his presence and I know that Walter will never cease petitioning to God on our behalf. I am not so sanguine about the direction taken by the current bishops of the Unite States. Because Walter taught me to love the Church; because Walter taught me that bishops could be both pastoral and prophetic; I will pray that our current bishops turn away from excluding and purging all those who fail their doctrinal litmus tests and I will pray that they come to embrace the motto of Bishop Walter Sullivan – to unite all in Christ.