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Joseph M. Sullivan, R.I.P.

In a better church, Brooklyn's retired auxiliary bishop Joseph Sullivan would have headed a large diocese. He certainly had the ability and the track record, but it was not to be - no doubt because he was viewed as too liberal.

Nonetheless, he made enormous contributions to the church and to his city, and they will be remembered. Bishop Sullivan died today at the age of 83 as a result of injuries suffered in a traffic accident on May 30.

Appointed in 1968 to be executive director of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, he became one of the church's leading experts on social services and later, health services as well. In 1980, Pope John Paul II appointed him (and another Brooklyn priest, Anthony J. Bevilacqua) as auxiliary bishops.

No careerist, Bishop Sullivan refused to back away from his friends Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro during their high-profile battles with Cardinal John O'Connor over Catholic politicians and abortion. By 1989, when Brooklyn's Bishop Francis Mugavero died, it was clear to everyone that no matter how qualified he might be, Sullivan would not be named to head the diocese.

Somehow, that made him all the more impressive a figure. At meetings of the bishops' conference, his comments seemed to receive the respect and attention accorded to the words of a cardinal. He headed an ad hoc committee that created the bishops' 1999 document "In All Things Charity: A Pastoral Challenge for the New Millennium." He continued to fight the good fight, whether for peace, for the poor, for workers, for the ill and uninsured.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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He did indeed fight the good fight and was very respected by community advocates in NYC. What a loss.

One thing must be added to the list in the last sentence of this post -- "he continued to fight the good fight" for the LGBT community in the Church. I use "LGBT" on purpose because he used it.

I was honored to have met him on a couple of occasions. 

Interesting fact -- he had a brief professional baseball career:

A so-so pitcher (small sample-size) but a Hall of Fame priest and bishop.  He will be sorely missed.




Jack - thanks for that link on Bishop Sullivan's piece on LGBT outreach. It seems to me a model for other bishops to use.

Paul Moses has pointed out that Bishop Sullivan was listened to by the bishops at their plenary meetings. And this, even though by the mid-1990s he was more and more in the minority as the Bernardin moderates were increasingly replaced by new men who seemed to find compromise and dialogue to be signs of weakness. The "periphery" began to look fixededly to the "center" for guidance.

Joseph Sullivan was one of the most articulate voices in the room. He was concise and well-prepared, never faltering or stumbling. And few could match his quick yet always gentle sense of humor. He was very funny.

On this feast of the Sacred Heart may Bishop Sullivan receive the reward promised to the good and faithful servant.

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Well put, John Page.

Mr. Pauwels --I absolutely agree about Bishop Sullivan's approach being a model.  I've recently been moved by Fr. James Martin, SJ's twitter campaign  #SayingSomethingPositive

He started it off with this tweet:

"I would love to see a Catholic leader make an unabashedly positive statement about gays and lesbian Catholics, without including a critique."

Amen -- even more important now that we have lost one of the few Bishops who actually made the unabashedly positive statements Fr. James is in search of.


A further, brief comment. Bishop Joseph Sullivan was, I believe, one of a handful of bishops who supported the COMMONWEAL Annual Fund. Most, if not all, of them now retired.

He was a wonderful man, and invariably cheerful--at least when I ran into him. He was a faithful attender of Commonweal events and of forums at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. He greeted you with a smile, "Peg, How are you?" and usually had a story to tell. After many years when he might have been a great bishop in his own diocese, he laughed when referred to as an auxiliary-for-life. I think he never expected to win a fight and what made him cheerful was that he won enough to make a difference.

" I would love to see a Catholic leader make an unabashedly positive statement about gays and lesbian Catholics, without including a critique."

I'm 72. Do you think it will happen before I die?

I honestly do not, at least here in the US.

The NYTimes obit has a great quote from Sullivan at the end of the story; sounds corny, except he meant it: a man happy in his work.



Peggy referred to the final paragraph of the N.Y. Times obituary:


In the 1999 interview with The Times, he said he could not imagine a better life. “I really think of this job as heaven on the way to heaven,” he said. “It doesn’t come at the end. It begins here.”


Sullivan’s words bring to mind those of Catherine of Siena, so often quoted by Dorothy Day:  "All the way to heaven is heaven."

How did Bishop Sullivan handle the abortion controversy?  Did he express disagreemen with Cuomo and Ferraro more gently than Cardinal O'Connor?  What was the difference in approach that inspires Commonweal thinkers?

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