Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn was snatched from us one year and one week ago. He died when a tire blew on his car and he pulled into the emergency lane on one of the big city’s fast and furious expressways only to be hit by an oncoming truck.
For most of his priestly life, Bishop Joe Sullivan worked in his home diocese of Brooklyn in Catholic Charities and in Catholic hospitals. As a result of these engagements, he became known nationally as the “go-to” bishop on social justice and Catholic medical issues.
He served on the board of the Catholic Health Association as the official liaison of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for many years, served as chairman of Catholic Charities USA’s board and also as a member, served as Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Social Justice and again as chair of the Domestic Social Justice committee. He chaired and supported strongly the Catholic Medical Mission Board which distributes donated medicines to poor countries around the world. He first asked me if I would be willing to take a seat on the board of directors of the Catholic Health Association and then again if I would replace him as a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Medical Mission Board.
The bishop was one of the happiest but most realistic men I have ever met. He played minor league baseball as a pitcher before entering the seminary. He fancied himself as something of an Irish tenor and could easily be coaxed into singing “Danny Boy” at the drop of a zucchetto (that’s the pink beanie we bishops wear). He was never happier when as a member of the episcopal conference he served on the drafting/writing committee of the USCCB’s pastoral letters on the dangers of war and the promise of peace as well as on the economy. His was the mind of a social justice activist and he supported workers in their right to organize into union in the footsteps of Chicago’s Monsignor Jack Egan and George Higgins.
He walked and talked faster than anyone I know. Fast talking with a Brooklyn accent made anyone attempting to listen to listen even closer. He was a man of infinite hope, incredible charity, great faith, and endless love for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and dying, the homeless, the undocumented, and so on. And he was walking contagion. To be near him was to become infected with the joy of the Gospel.
This afternoon [Sunday, June 22nd] I will be delivering the first annual Bishop Joseph Sullivan Lecture, an annual tribute to his memory established by his (and my) beloved Catholic Health Association, as the keynote address for their Annual Assembly beginning today in Chicago, Illinois. You may read my address by clicking here if you wish. Forewarned, however, is to be forearmed – it is a lengthy text. I had great fun drafting it because I love and honor its two principal foci, Bishop Joe and Pope Francis. Let me know what you think, as I know lots of other people will.