Remembering Sargent Shriver on his 106th Birthday

“I’m a struggler, a student, a pilgrim trying to see, and hear, and understand. I need you more than you need me. So please bear with me, as I try to share my thoughts with so many here who are much wiser, more learned, holier than I!”
Sargent Shriver |South Bend, IN| March 17, 1979

Our Quote of the Week calls to mind some of the characteristics and abilities that made Sargent Shriver distinct as a servant leader: his human-centric spirituality, his ability to foster collaboration, and his willingness to solicit, devise, and implement innovative solutions to society’s most challenging social problems. As we mark the 106th anniversary of his birth on November 9, we thought we’d take a closer look at some of the traits that defined him.

This week’s quote comes from the 1979 Address to the Assembly of the Laity Conference, a speech that highlights the philosophical and spiritual ideas that shaped Sargent Shriver’s thinking and actions. It is a sweeping and fiery speech that points out the importance of morality and ethics when making decisions that affect human lives. Through his words we see he is at once devoted to his Christian ideals and yet insistent that our decision-making be rooted in a secular endeavor: to support and strengthen all of humanity. He says:

“I suggest we commence the long, hard task -- where scholars are needed as much as saints -- of lifting ourselves from ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to an additional and new level of political thought and moral vigor: to ‘the pursuit of holiness’ ... So it will take a thousand years for human beings to see ‘the pursuit of holiness’ as a practical, transforming personal, and societal possibility. [...] What’s the relevance, however, of holiness to our contemporary problems? [...] What is holiness, and why pursue it? [...] The call of holiness, as Jesus picks it up, is interpreted in such simple, and, if you like, such secular terms that the people around Him were often shocked. They were shocked at how lightly he treated Sabbath rules when the welfare, the health, the life, or even the happiness of an afflicted person was at stake. They were rather shocked how his focus - at the way his focus - was on basic human relations with one another, and the basic human attitude to God, and not with the performance of rituals. It is not recorded of Him that He denied the importance of ritual - in fact He participated - but people in His time seem to have been shocked at the hierarchy of His values. What He put first was, in fact, the secular - was, in fact, what we would think of as the layman’s natural field. It wasn’t the churchy business of organizing worship.”

In reading the speech, a portrait of Shriver emerges: as a practical idealist who was fueled by a progressive spirituality that allowed him to tackle issues from racism (with his civil rights work) to diplomacy (with the Peace Corps and as US Ambassador to France) to poverty (with the War on Poverty), injustice (poverty law) and more (with his work on denuclearization and at Special Olympics).

During his life, Sargent Shriver often reminded us that it was up to all of us to make the world a more just and peaceful place. As we remember him on his 106th birthday, let us heed his call to focus “on basic human relations with one another ... and not with the performance of rituals.”

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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