Mark Shriver of the Kennedy Family Speaks About Faith, Love, and His Father, Sargent Shriver

Last week, the USF community welcomed to campus Mark Kennedy Shriver: prominent political figure, senior vice president of U.S. Programs at Save the Children, father of three, and just recently, New York Times bestselling author. Though he wouldn’t call himself that.

“I never set out trying to write a book,” said Shriver, who spoke to USF students about his newly published success, “A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.” “I just wanted to figure out why so many people told me [my father] was a good man,” he said. “That’s really what this book is about—a son trying to figure out his father.”

The story about his father, Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., however, is really a story of faith. “His whole life revolved around his relationship with God,” he said. Shriver follows his father’s political footsteps, previously serving in Maryland’s House of Delegates from 1995-2003, while his father served as the United States ambassador to France. He hopes to live up to Sargent Shriver’s legacy far beyond the realm of the Democratic party. According to Shriver’s speech, faith is what will help him achieve that goal.

“It’s faith that I see consistent throughout [my father’s] life dedicated to making a difference for people—to do what he called ‘our Father’s business.’ That is, to help the poor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. And this message, I hope, will really resonate here at USF.”

This might be why Shriver began his speech not with talk of his book, but instead by emphasizing the value of a Jesuit education and, particularly, the Ignatius idea of being a woman or man for others. As vice president of Save the Children, Shriver developed the non-governmental organization’s early childhood development, literacy and health programs for impoverished children in the rural United States; this idea of the Jesuit mission is one he knows quite well. Shriver reflected that his education at College of the Holy Cross allowed him to understand that we really can change the world from wherever we are. This inspiration to live a life of selflessness came from his father, affectionately known as Sarge.

When his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s came to a close in 2011, Shriver noted how many people would offer their condolences by saying, “He was a good man.” At first, Shriver thought this was simply a polite way of addressing someone who had just lost a family member, but the consistent remarks on the content of his father’s character suggested there was something more to the complement; it was this thought that sparked his interest in writing a piece about a man that dedicated himself to the common good.

Much of what Shriver related to the audience in his speech were anecdotes about his father. “In college, I thought he was a little crazy,” admitted Shriver. “He would read all night long and slept probably 3-4 hours a night with books all around his bed. He’d write notes and letters to people and, you know, as I’m raising my children with my wife of 20 years, I’m asking myself how he balanced it all.”

According to Shriver, the answer is, once again, faith. “He went to mass every day. He was fired up because he thought every conversation with every person he was interacting with was a gift from God. And that’s because he went to mass and got on his knees and asked for help. It gave him so much energy—exhausting amounts of energy.”

Continually relating back to the fundamentals of faith, hope, and love, it became clear that Shriver, like his father, believes every answer is one of faith. With these values in mind, Shriver has reached the conclusion that much of living life is about enduring struggle, and although there is a lot to balance, remaining hopeful and faithful is what leads people to make a difference in the world. Shriver remains humble in the wake of his growingly successful career, attributing many of his triumphs to his father. The unconditional love he provided to his children gave Shriver the ability to be a compassionate father himself.

“He was a great father and a great husband. And he was fun. He’d have a couple of drinks with you and laugh and then bam—he’s up at 7 a.m. mass ready to rock and roll,” said Shriver.

Upon his graduation from Harvard Law School, Sarge fought through the gruesome battles of World War II. Following the war, he began the job of desegregating churches and schools with Joseph Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s father) alongside the help of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sarge’s energy and passion for others was limitless, said Shriver. This book is, in essence, a testament to his father’s character that remained ever strong even through his struggle with Alzheimers. Shriver recognizes the disease as one that can strip someone of their sanity, one that breaks a human down to the core of their being. And yet, when Shriver asked his father how it felt to be living with such a devastating disease, he responded, “I’m doing the best I can with what God has given me.”

Sargent Shriver’s immense strength and love for others served as his son Mark’s inspiration to become the influential figure that he is today. Although the event held on campus this past Wednesday evening was intended to be a celebration of the success of Mark Shriver, he made it a night about the successes of others. Shriver’s passion for social justice is evident in his commending remarks of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, in the stories he tells about his father, and, of course, in the way he lives his life. It is this goal of common good, strewn throughout his discoveries, that Shriver uses in his commitment to Save the Children.

And when life as a Kennedy becomes a bit too much, Shriver looks back to his father. “He always said you just gotta do what God asks you to do. [My father] understood that and did that better than anybody, and it’s something I struggle with every day—really just trying to keep that in focus. Because the rest of it, it’s just not important.”

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