R.I.P. Bishop Walter F Sullivan of Richmond: Thank You My Smiling Bishop Friend
me a letter and explain how you think the grace of ordination as a Deacon would enhance your evangelistic, ecumenical and pro-life work".
He continued, "The way I understand the Second Vatican Council, I am supposed to look for men who are already serving the Lord - sort of "anonymous deacons" - and discern whether the grace of orders would enhance their service". He explained that he felt my evangelistic, ecumenical and pro-life work in the Culture was a service to the Church, involved social justice and was very diaconal. All these years later, I still marvel at his insight.
Bishop Sullivan believed that this was what the Council Fathers had in mind when they restored this ancient order of clergy to the Church. He believed it was to be an order of clergy in the midst of the world. I am grateful for his insight and his invitation. I believe he was correct. I also think it would be a helpful insight as the order matures in our midst. Frankly, I think it could help those involved in the discernment process.
I had studied at the undergraduate level in Theology and Philosophy at Steubenville and had a Law Degree. So, the Bishop set up a mentoring program with a wonderful priest, the late Monsignor Bill Sullivan. We pursued directed readings and studies in canon law. He was a great Canon lawyer, a priests priest and a true gentleman.
Father Sullivan also led me through the installation in what were formerly the minor orders. I needed a parish to be assigned to during my studies and a spiritual director. I obtained a spiritual director. However, several priests simply did not understand why I wanted to be a deacon and somehow thought the idea was a threat to lay ministry. I had a hard time finding a parish for training.
In hindsight, it still saddens me. Deacons have a very special role in empowering and assisting lay ministry. It was no accident that the very Council which renewed the Order of Deacons in the West also emphasized the apostolate of the lay faithful. Fortunately, a holy priest named Fr Tim Drake took me into his parish. I learned so much from his humility and holiness.
I knew the grace of a call to ordained ministry and the time of preparation was rich. It put within a deep hunger for more theological studies which led me to such studies at the graduate level. In fact, it uncovered another call, to study and teach theology to future priests, deacons and lay leaders. I await its flourishing in the Lord's time.
My ordination was a profound experience. It did indeed create a "mark" on my soul as the teaching of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Orders so clearly states. My ministry as a deacon is not better than my ministry as a lay leader, but it is profoundly different.
I will never forget laying on the floor, prostrate in surrender. At times I can still feel the imposition of Bishop Sullivan's hands on my head. Often, when I process to the Ambo with the book of the Gospels I think of him placing the Book of the Gospels in my hands.
I regularly remember him proclaiming, "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach" when I read the Gospel. Its implications are still being unpacked every time I prepare or preach a homily, teach or share the teaching of the Church in public ministry. Everything in my life changed from that day forward because I changed.
Bishop Sullivan's support continued in the early years of my diaconal service. He was willing to take risks. Like when I asked him if we could start a Newman Club at the local evangelical Protestant University, Regent University, in order to serve the growing number of Catholic Students and promote authentic ecumenical cooperation. He approved it after the administration of the University agreed. A wonderful priest stepped up to the task and the club continues to this day.
I hungered for more theological studies. I sensed the Lord was calling me to pursue them in order to be more effective in ministry and prepare for future service. Others might have discouraged it at that stage in my life. Not Bishop Sullivan. He encouraged me when I pursued my first graduate degree at the John Paul II Institute. He wrote a wonderful letter which assisted me in obtaining faculties in the Arlington Diocese and the DC Diocese.
Knowing from our conversations that I was a revert to the Church who had returned through reading the early fathers of the Church, he knew I loved the writings of the Eastern Fathers. So when I wanted his permission to respond to an invitation from a friend, the Melkite Eparch, Bishop John Elya, to study to serve as a Byzantine deacon, he wrote an immediate letter and I later obtained what are often called "bi-ritual" faculties.
When I returned to Hampton Roads after my Masters degree work, the Bishop was again encouraging. He always had a warm word and invited my input in parish assignments. Years later, when my wife and I discerned upon the death of my life's hero, Blessed John Paul II, to pursue the PhD at the Catholic University of America, Bishop Sullivan heard about it and told me that he was not at all surprised and encouraged me.
As the years past our times together grew less frequent. Yet, when our paths did cross, there was always that smile and that warmth. It was accompanied by that blunt frankness and candor so characteristic of this man when he would ask me for an update on my life. He was not averse to giving you his opinion. At times, the manner was disarming, but I always knew he was for me.
I guess that is the last thing I will say. It may be the most important thing. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan always made you know that he was for you. How we need that from our Bishops. How priests and deacons need the encouragement and support of their Bishop. Every year when our Office of Readings presents St Augustine's powerful instructions to Bishops, I think of those I have been privileged to serve.
When I read these words, "For you I am a Bishop and with you I am a Christian", I think of smiling Bishop Walter F. Sullivan. Thank you my smiling Bishop friend and friend of all the poor. May you rest in the joy of the Lord until we laugh together again in the fullness of the communion of love.
- - -
Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Bishop Walter F Sullivan, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, Richmond, Virginia, Diocese of Richmond, Diaconate in Christ, Deacon, ordination, Deacon Keith Fournier
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