In a speech at Georgetown University last week, which kicked off Jesuit Heritage Week at the school, Mark Shriver discussed some of the reasons his father, Sargent Shriver, was seen by many as not only a great man for his outstanding record of public service, but also as a good man in his personal treatment and interaction with others.
Shriver described his father as a “contemplative in action” whose outward dynamism and enthusiasm for life were paired with a rich interior life. Shriver credited Sarge’s joyful, energetic approach to life to his father’s relationship with God, cultivated through daily attendance at mass and getting down on his knees every single day in prayer.
Sarge is both one of the great men of the 20th century and an exceptionally good man—a model for all Christians, a modern day saint. Sargent Shriver led the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty. He helped establish Head Start, VISTA, and numerous other programs that help the poor and vulnerable. He pushed for civil rights and justice for people of all races. He never abandoned his commitment to protecting the unborn even as his political party became increasingly pro-choice. And he worked with his partner in all things, his beloved wife Eunice, to help transform the way we view those with disabilities.
His private life is equally inspiring. In A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, Mark Shriver writes that his father “was good, because he was great in the smaller, unseen corners of life,” a fact seemingly acknowledged by everyone who had the privilege of crossing paths with him.
And his greatness and goodness were inextricably linked. Mark Shriver identifies the “cosmic ambition for justice and equality” (as opposed to egotistical ambition) that drove his father’s efforts in politics. Shriver sees this rooted in his father’s “radical faith,” which helped shape a worldview that had compassion as its highest ideal.
But it is in describing Sarge’s life and actions as a family man and father where Mark Shriver really provides us with something special. This is the primary focus of Shriver’s book. Scott Stossel has already written a brilliant biography of Sargent Shriver, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, which is one of my favorite books. Thankfully Mark Shriver took A Good Man in a different direction than Stossel with a more personal look at his father as a man, Christian, husband, dad, and public servant.
We see that Sarge did not treat his children like campaign props, but as loved persons with infinite value. In the face of a scandal over his sixteen-year-old son Bobby’s arrest for smoking marijuana, his thoughts turned to the well-being of his child rather than damage control or political spin. Parenting was not about boosting his own ego, but loving his kids.
Whether in ignoring an important political figure to remain present and engaged with a young boy, in his devotion to his wife, or in taking the time to write daily notes to his children, Sarge’s actions reflect his belief in the intrinsic worth of each and every person. He touched countless lives by consistently acting in a way that reflected this belief.
In the book, Mark Shriver also allows us to read about his own evolution as a person. Shriver describes his own quest for distinction and accomplishments in a hypercompetitive family where everyone is striving for greatness. Over time, he comes to see the importance of being a good man and the important lessons in goodness provided by his father.
Finally, Shriver describes the difficult and heartbreaking process associated with caring for a loved one who is faced with a serious illness or affliction, in this case with Alzheimer’s. He describes the tough times that go along with this, but also those precious moments of light and sweetness.
I was lucky enough to attend Sarge Shriver’s funeral, as one of the last members of the general public admitted into the church. I didn’t go to see Bill Clinton or Joe Biden, Michelle Obama or Bono, or any other celebrity in attendance, but to hear about the life of the man whose picture hangs on my wall, a politician who I admire as much as any other.
The constant thread running through everything that was said that day was how this great man was also an exceptionally good man. And Mark Shriver’s book gives us a wonderful, intimate look into the life of his father, a life inspired by strong faith, vivifying hope, and transformative love. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in reading about one of our great contemporary saints.