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.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, 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). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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