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Former Bishop Sullivan remembered at Richmond Mass

Wednesday - 12/19/2012, 5:29pm  ET

By STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Former Bishop Walter F. Sullivan's life was celebrated Wednesday for his devotion to the poor, his ministry to the imprisoned and his ecumenical influence in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond that he led for 29 years.

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, who succeeded Sullivan, celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial before an estimated 1,000 people who crowded into the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Seminarians in white cassocks led a long procession of priests and church dignitaries into the sanctuary to begin the 2 1/2-hour Mass.

The retired bishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; Gov. Bob McDonnell; Sen.-elect Tim Kaine; and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli were among the mourners. Church leaders from Baltimore, Birmingham and the military services also attended.

Sullivan _ who died Dec. 11, just weeks after he was diagnosed with liver cancer _ was the 11th and longest-serving bishop of the Richmond diocese, which stretches from the Eastern Shore through central and southwestern Virginia to the Kentucky and Tennessee state lines. He was 84 and retired in 2003.

Sullivan was an activist spiritual leader, visiting the poor in their homes and the homeless on the streets and welcoming gay and lesbian Catholics to the diocese's churches. He also saw many new parishes added during his tenure.

Monsignor William L. Pitt, the former principal of Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach and a lifelong friend, said Sullivan was an avid tennis player and travel enthusiast who above all was a "people person."

"He loved being with people, and he loved people," Pitt said. "He was accessible, and he listened."

Pitt told of Sullivan's travels to the Vatican, his devotion to impoverished Haiti, his visits to inmates on Virginia's death row and his peace activism. He was president of Pax Christi USA, the national peace movement.

"He was our hope and inspiration, and he continues to be so," Pitt said.

Born in Washington, Sullivan was an old-style warrior for social justice. He reached out to immigrant families and to other denominations in an ecumenical spirit, and he provided a greater role for women in the church as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. The cathedral's grounds include a memorial to the Holocaust, and Sullivan had been a member of the Virginia Holocaust Museum board of directors.

His Commission on Sexual Minorities was the first official attempt by a Catholic diocese to reach out to homosexual Catholics. DiLorenzo disbanded it shortly after he succeeded Sullivan.

"The word catholic means there's room for everyone," Sullivan said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2003.

Kevin Walter Hughes, among the extended Sullivan family that filled the first eight pews on one side of the aisle of the cathedral, described large, informal family dinners where Sullivan's lofty position in the church quickly dissolved. Even in his final days, as his body failed, Sullivan was eager to watch the Army- Navy football game.

"He was so weak, but his enthusiasm for life was not dampened," Hughes said.

As clergy filed outside the cathedral, usher Franklin Booker recalled how he had come to the church for an uncle's funeral Mass and so enjoyed the experience that he returned, meeting Sullivan and taking an immediate liking to him. The former Baptist is now a member of the church.

"He was easy to approach," Booker said. "If I have a relative who is sick, I would call him."

While the ailing relative might not be Catholic, Sullivan would still come and lead prayers. "He would do that because that's the kind of person he was," Booker said.

Outside the cathedral, seminarian John Baab said Sullivan confirmed him and led a spiritual life worth following.

"I think everybody, all the speakers, gave witness to the charity he lived day in and day out," said Baab, 26 and a first-year student at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore.

On Sullivan's outreach to gay men and lesbians, he said, "It's perfectly part of the church's mission to welcome everyone into the body of Christ _ gay, lesbian, straight, whatever. It always needs to be done with love and understanding and compassion.

"You are witness to what the church believes, but you also meet people where they are," Baab said.

Sullivan was interred in a crypt beneath the cathedral also next to his predecessor, Bishop John J. Russell, who died in 1993.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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Online:

Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond: http://www.richmondcathedral.org/


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)