Meeting Sargent Shriver, seeing the church of love

by Erin O'Keefe

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Sargent Shriver, Trappist Monks, and Pope Benedict XVI’s election are three things I’ve been thinking about recently. Let me explain.

It all stems from April 19, 2005, which, for me, is one of those days that stand far out above all others, shining in memory.

That spring I was a young college student in Washington taking a peace studies course with Colman McCarthy: journalist, peace activist, former monastic, vegan, and decamped Catholic.

The class organized a Saturday field trip to Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Virginia. We met in the parking lot and piled into vans for the drive. Before we could leave campus, bells began to ring -- at first from only one direction, loud and clear -- and then from many directions.

Rolling down the window someone shouted a query to a friar.

Habemus Papam” his voice sang in response, “We have a pope.”

As we began the drive, we turned on the radio -- hoping for news of who was chosen. Ears glued to the talk radio station, waiting nervously: this choice, after all, affects every Catholic’s life.

This was the first new pope of our lives and it seemed everything might change.

I do not remember the moment when Joseph Ratzinger was named the conclave’s choice. I do remember the reaction in our van: fear. For a group of socially conscious students, this decision from Rome felt like a disregard for the church’s entire social mission, which I believe is one of the strongest reasons for young people to remain Catholic.

Discouragement settled in, the radio was eventually turned off or perhaps the dial turned to something more pleasant. We continued our drive to the abbey.

It was a beautiful, clear spring day -- the sky was bright blue, flowers were in bloom, and the pastoral hills of the Cistercian monastery were picturesque. We sat on the grass in front of the buildings until Colman arrived. He stepped out of his car and announced that he had brought a guest.

“This,” he smiled, “is my good friend Sargent Shriver.”

Shriver accompanied us as we sat in the library and spoke with the abbot about life at the abbey and about Trappist monks in general.

Shriver walked with us through part of the monastery that had been converted into a museum. He even went with the students to investigate the gift shop.

I spoke to Shriver at some point during that afternoon. I do not remember what I said, nor what he said in response, but I do remember that I felt welcomed in that interaction; that he smiled, and I smiled back.

When I reflect on that day, I see Shriver’s presence as a gift. He was a man who, fueled by the social mission of the Catholic Church, dedicated his life to service and to encouraging others to serve in the same spirit.

Shriver gained strength from the life and writings of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Teilhard de Chardin -- much as I have. He knew what it was to live and be church.

The heart and spirit that Shriver embodied is church as movement, as love, as peace, and as gift of self.

When I feared that spirit would be lost with the papal election, his very presence said to me, simply: “Never.”

[Erin O'Keefe writes from Bethel, Alaska, where she works for the Lower Kuskokwim School District. She graduated from The Catholic University of America with degrees in theology and drama.]

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