One of Virginia’s most important religious leaders in decades, and a leader who held firm to his liberal beliefs, died Tuesday at 84. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, former head of the Diocese of Richmond, passed away after being ill with cancer.
Bishop from 1970 until 2003, Sullivan was an anomaly in this conservative state. He fought the death penalty as well as abortion. In a state that is filled with military facilities, he opposed nuclear weapons and the wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. He backed outreach to gays, African Americans and Jews and included women in more Catholic Church services.
The Washington native grew up in Chevy Chase and came of age during the years of great upheaval during the Civil Rights movement, feminism and anti-war protests. He was a disciple of the church’s Vatican II movement of the 1960s, which attempted to make the huge institution more oriented toward people and less toward its strict hierarchy.
Sullivan attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained a priest in Richmond in 1953. He celebrated his elevation to bishop with a hot dog cookout attended by 1,500. The man drove 30,000 miles a year to visit parishioners in Eastern and Central Virginia as the church went through a large expansion brought on by people moving in from other states and countries. Among those he welcomed were Hispanics who came to the Old Dominion in search of work.
There was plenty of pushback against Sullivan. His critiques of the military brought harsh reaction in a state that has the second largest defense sector in the country. Other religious leaders during his heyday included fundamentalist Protestants Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who were at other end of the political spectrum. Editorial writers at the conservative Richmond newspapers bashed him regularly, prompting his many followers to buy advertising pages to defend him.
Unfortunately, it is the Catholic Church itself that is helping destroy Sullivan’s legacy. His successor, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, has followed more traditional Vatican trends. He has scaled back female participation in church matters, is far less supportive of gays and has issued decrees that speakers at parishes have to be cleared by him.
But Sullivan’s memory lives on. One priest who worked directly with Sullivan in the late 1970s once asked him why he had a decal of the American flag on his car bumper. Sullivan replied: “We have to take our symbols back.”