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A Catholic in the Public Eye


Son rediscovers story of Sargent Shriver, ‘A Good Man’

Catholic News Service

He was known for a key role in JFK’s “Camelot” administration and ran for president himself in 1976. He was the founder of the Peace Corps and the father of famous children, including TV star daughter, Maria. When Sargent Shriver was laid to rest in January 2011, his eulogists included former President Bill Clinton and U2 singer Bono, and in the pews was first lady Michelle Obama.

Two Knights of Columbus preside at the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961, as President John F. Kennedy hands a pen to brother-in-law Sargent Shriver after signing the bill that brought Shriver's brainchild into existence. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

Two Knights of Columbus preside at the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961, as President John F. Kennedy hands a pen to brother-in-law Sargent Shriver after signing the bill that brought Shriver's brainchild into existence. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

Yet Shriver, a devout Catholic and proud member of the Knights of Columbus, was a humble man who relied on the power of God more than the prestige of politics, says his son Mark. In the hours and days following his dad’s death, people from all walks of life, from the vice president to the neighborhood trash collector, offered this refrain, “He was a good man.”

Those words of sympathy inspired Mark Shriver to reflect on and research why that phrase summarized the life and work of his famous father, who died in 2011. As a result he wrote A Good Man, published by Henry Holt and Company. It is subtitled, “Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.”

“I was taken aback when I heard it from the first couple of people, I thought that was something nice to say to someone who just lost his father,” said Mark Shriver in an interview at his Washington office, where he works as the senior vice president of U.S. programs at Save the Children.

“I realized the phrase meant something. ... I realized to be good in the public eye and outside the public eye is harder than being great. There are a lot of people hailed as great men and women who aren’t good people. ... I realized it’s more challenging to be good when you’re in and out of the public eye,” he told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese.

Sargent Shriver, a lifelong Catholic, was revered in the public square as the founding director of the Peace Corps and the architect of anti-poverty programs such as Vista, Head Start and Legal Services. He was U.S. ambassador to France and ran for president of the United States.

In his private life, he was a loving husband to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died in 2009, and a loving father to their five children.

Mark Shriver found that the source of his dad’s joy, vision and strength was his Catholic faith, “his daily relationship with God.” He started each day kneeling in prayer at early morning Mass.

“He was grounded in faith, and faith demanded acts of hope and love. Those acts of hope and love were his life’s work,” Mark Shriver said.

Faith “grounded him, and he realized God is God, and you have to realize you’re not. In America, we think we’re in charge, the head of everything. He realized he wasn’t (in charge). That gave him great freedom and energy. He realized God was in charge.”

As he rediscovered his dad, Mark Shriver said he learned lessons about finding balance in his own life. While he was reflecting on how joyful his dad was, Shriver said, “I was trying to figure out how to balance marriage, fatherhood, a profession, a relationship to God and commitment to the community. I was trying to understand how he pulled that together. I learned it’s really hard. I learned his faith was the driving force in his life.”

His son found that faith taught Sargent Shriver to trust in God, and not in material things, after his family lost nearly everything in the Depression.

That faith, his son writes, helped Sargent Shriver bravely serve his country during World War II and then devote his adult life to building peace by promoting justice and opportunity in the United States and around the world. Eunice was the founder of the Special Olympics and as that movement grew, Sargent Shriver not only cheered on the athletes from the sideline, but also worked behind the scenes to expand the Special Olympics to China, which later hosted games attended by 80,000 people.

“They (my mom and dad) went to church (together) every day, had dinner together,” Mark Shriver said. “They took it (their marriage) seriously and were committed to it. ... They had different personalities, but they worked incredibly well together. It was grounded in their faith. They saw injustice, and their faith demanded they do something about it.”

And that faith, Mark Shriver writes, helped Sargent Shriver endure Alzheimer’s disease with grace and love. At one point on a car ride, Mark Shriver asked his dad how he was coping with the disease, and he said, “I’m doing the best I can with what God has given me.”

When asked about his dad’s greatest legacy, he said, “It’s a man of faith, a man who didn’t care about his ego, and who put his faith in action to help the poor and powerless, a man who treated everyone the same, whether you’re powerful or a regular person.”

Adapted from a CNS story.

Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops