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Joan Chittister Remembers Eunice Kennedy Shriver at Flame of Hope Ceremony

Timothy Shriver: My mother and father loved and admired and learned from Sr. Joan Chittister for decades. So, it was a powerful blessing that she came to Hyannisport on my mother’s birthday this year to help light the flame of hope to commemorate the 50thanniversary of Special Olympics.  She spoke of faith seeking justice, of love seeking understanding, and of the hope of seeking a better future. My mother was surely cheering for her from heaven as Joan was cheering for her on earth. Below is the speech that she gave.

Somewhere along the line, I learned as a young writer that there’s really not much more words can do to underscore the impact on the American mind of, for instance, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Once you’ve seen the 60-foot high granite sculptures of these great men looming above on Mount Rushmore, everything you need to know about their astounding vision, their implacable courage, their fearless leadership and their relentless capacity to prevail is right there…on the face of that mountain in front of your eyes. Right there, taking your breath away.

Right there, demanding your attention, and so, really still steadfastly, leading the way of the American heart to even more unquenchable ideals, and the search for new mountains to climb.

But then, realizing the power of the monuments on the character of a society I realized now with a new clarity what all of us are really doing here today. We’ve come here today to stand before the looming memory of a new kind of Mount Rushmore of our own time called Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics.

But we’ve come together this time, each of us with our own personal memories of Eunice, our own private experiences of her restless, agitated (and often agitating) dedication that was her unceasing and holy devotion to lives then unnoticed by too many; and as a result, until she came, too little lived.

Indeed this time we’ve come to attest to the vision and courage of a woman herself who refused to live half a life and, as a result, has herself become a monument to the goodness of life for us all–but this time, memorialized, not in stone and sculpture, but in the flame of a new vision and the fire of ongoing and courageous compassion.

In Eunice, the scriptures, the sages, the seers and spiritual masters down the ages all come together in a chorus of cries to us to stay the course she began, to broaden the path for all to trod, to make the way brighter for those who, without her, could have gone on interminably living in the shadows of those inclined to take for granted that the greatness and goods of creation were for themselves alone.

In the Christian scriptures, for instance, Jesus is very, very clear. He cries out to the apostles then and to us now: “I have come to spread fire on earth …And I wish it would be blazing!” (Luke 12:49)

I wish, he says in other words, that what must be done in this world for those who have no power to do it for themselves the rest of you woul now get on with doing it!

That is the voice of Eunice’s Jesus, the voice she heard as she exhausted herself trying to set fire under the rest of us, trying to kindle a blaze of love and care for the unloved and uncared for everywhere. For that is surely our memorial task now.

The rabbis, too, tell the story of disciples who faced with the imminent death of their Holy One are in despair. What would happen now without him to lead them, to go on showing them the way? And so the rabbi tells them, “It is like this, ‘when two people meet in a dark wood and one has a lantern, they can both walk safely and happily together. But if they come to a crossroad and the one with the lantern departs, the other must grope her way alone unless, of course, she carries her own light within her.'”

Eunice has shown her light on a path few ever saw before her. But most of all, she left behind her a light for all of us to see, to follow, to tend, to trim, to increase within ourselves and to multiply in others.

When we lit this great flaming icon of her eternal impact today, it became clearer than ever that it is only the heat and light of our own internal fire for this work that will now determine its strength, its promise, it’s longevity. And as long as that light remains not only here but in ourselves as well, her eternal impact on our society will not only remain but grow.

As Bernard Baruch put it, “Millions saw the apple fall, but only Newton asked why?”

Millions saw the many being abandoned and deprived of the fullness of life simply because their intellectual development was different than ours. But only Eunice realized the inhumanity that underlies the unrecognized needs of those millions. And as clearly as the sculptures on Mount Rushmore impose themselves on our minds and souls, Eunice and Jesus expect us to keep this flame burning and fan those lives to full blaze forever!

Finally, one of the desert monastics shows us what it means to be light and life for others. “Master,” the disciple said, “I keep my little fasts, I pray my little prayers, I live my little rules. What else can I do to become holy?”

And the Holy One stoode up, stretched his arms our far, farther, farthest, spread open his fingers like dancing tongues of flame and said, “Why not be turned completely into fire?”

We’re here because we each believe in the Special Olympics. We’re here because we each have learned something more about life ouselves because of it. We’re here because we have all become wiser, even smarter, in a way, and certainly holier in proportion to our nearness to that flame.

And so to really light this flame today is to promise to become part of this fire ourselves with our own lives, our own vision, our own ideas and ideals. It means not only that we will continue the work, but that we–thanks to the blaze Eunice kindled in all of us–will ourselves increase the brilliance of the flame, that has become the Special Olympics.

Will we raise the intensity of the heat with which the Special Olympics warms the heart of the world, and will ourselves to become the radiance of the fire that has lit up these special, Special Olympics everywhere around the world?

It is that spirit and with that hope that we stand at this grave now and bring to glow in us again the flaming message of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics and with it, left to us a brand new blazing world.

Joan Chittister is one of the most influential religious and social leaders of our time. For 40 years she has passionately advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues, and church renewal. A much sought-after speaker, counselor and clear voice that bridges across all religions, she is also a best-selling author of more than 50 books, hundreds of articles, an online column for the National Catholic Reporter, and a blog for the Huffington Post.

This essay was featured in the July 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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