Bishop Walter F. Sullivan on war, nonviolence and a lesson from Sept. 11. 

Day of Peace

On the cusp of the World Day of Peace, Jan 1, Style caught up with Bishop Walter F. Sullivan — not an easy task, as his Diocese of Richmond covers three-fifths of the state.

"Oh, where's my coffee?" he asks, rushing around to find his mug before settling into a chair in his sunny, houseplant-jungled office near the cathedral. Along with the requisite framed photographs of the pope hangs a portrait of the bishop's two dogs, and the mantel boasts an autographed picture of pianist Yanni.

Bishop Sullivan seems like an easygoing guy — yet he holds deep convictions about peace and faith in troubled times.

Style: You recently returned from the bishops' convocation in Washington, D.C. — What came out of that meeting?

Sullivan: A couple of wonderful positions. One was the concern for the people of Africa, and the church should be reaching out to them more. Troubled countries, as you know.

The other would be the war, the terrorist attacks. The bishops have said that our response is justified, to try to root out terrorism. At the same time we're very concerned for our refugees who are suffering; there's a real danger of starvation. There's about 7 million of these people. It's a real humanitarian problem, with what is happening.

The other thing, we did a meeting about refugees from Asia. Quite a few have come to this country … Our diocese, surprisingly enough, is about 19th in the country for the number of Asian refugees. If you added the diocese to Virginia as a whole, it would probably be sixth or seventh in the country … What is happening, of course, with the terrorist attack it is much more difficult for refugees to come into the country, and I think the bishops are concerned that they will be discriminated against.

What about your work with international peace organization Pax Christi?

I was in Mainz, Germany, in early November. I'm the bishop-president of Pax Christi USA, and they had the international meeting … And of course there's a strong commitment in Pax Christi to nonviolence, to seek peaceful means to heal differences. The big concern is, the international bishop-president is the patriarch of Jerusalem, so he's urging … some sort of peaceful solution [to the Mideast crisis]. Now, of course, it's gotten worse.

And of course the whole war in Afghanistan, again to try to bring about peace. The main concern is for the refugees.

How do you reconcile Pax Christi's mission with the Vatican's message that retaliation is justified?

I'm a great believer in nonviolence. I do believe at the same time that a country has an obligation to defend the innocent, and therefore, when you realize what has occurred, that it's justified to take action. Just to ignore it, I think, would be wrong.

But then there's parameters — it's not just an open, do-anything-you-want kind of mentality. Peace has to be achieved through justice, and we have to be concerned for the innocent — like the civilian population. The extensive bombing that's going on — it's hard to judge. I certainly would not condemn or even criticize what has occurred in Afghanistan, when you realize what is bombed and who are the participants. At the same time, you do have obligations, not to just run into that country and leave immediately. We have obligations to help form a democracy or a true government. It's not going to be easy, because we tend to walk away from situations. We're known for that.

The diocese's motto is "To Unite All in Christ." How have you seen this happening in the holiday time and into the new year?

I find that people are coming together with the terrible tragedies that have occurred. People have bonded together — there's sort of a spiritual renewal that's taking place. People are waiting for answers spiritually. We're looking for answers when there are no answers. So we seek the One Who Is, above all, you know, which is the Lord, in order to put things in God's hands.

But I find there's a renewal of the spirit for people. … What I've been very pleased with is the larger attendance of young people. Here at the Cathedral we're wrapped around [Virginia Commonwealth University] — or they're wrapped around us, I should say. We were here first [chuckles]. No, it's a wonderful spirit, with a lot of young people participating. Which says something … There's a spiritual upswing, people seeking spirituality. See, spirituality is different from religion. … Spirituality is your relationship with God, whether it takes this form or that form or whatever form.

Have you had young people, or anyone, come to you directly, saying "Bishop, can you please explain what's going on in this world?"

We have those, we have those. And we have a marvelous story — a young man who worked at the cathedral, graduated from William and Mary and went to New York. He lost his wife in the Twin Towers and spoke to her right before she died. Has a 2-year-old baby. I think his reaction is just so moving. The reaction could be one of pain and despair, and yet it was still the love for his wife, and knowing in some mysterious way that she is still with him, and the Lord. It's those stories, I think, that just uplift people's hearts.

How would you recommend that Richmonders celebrate the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1?

Well, every year, I would say for the past 25 years, I've been celebrating at the cathedral the World Day of Peace Mass that has come from the leadership of our popes. So there are special prayers and special observance for peace … . Starting the New Year in the right way, you might say, we come together to worship, and to pray earnestly for peace.

When 9-11 occurred, people flocked to the churches, praying for peace, praying for meaning. Well, I hope they would do likewise on New Year's, [because] of the importance of

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