Thursday, August 10, 2006

Do we need a Fulton J. Sheen for today?

The post I made below on Billy Graham put me in mind of one of the men Graham professed admiration for and considered a friend - Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Graham called Sheen’s death in 1979, "a great loss to the nation and both the Catholic and Protestant churches. He broke down the walls of prejudice between Catholics and Protestants . . . I mourn his death and look forward to our reunion in heaven." As Sheen would have put it himself, “If we can’t pray to God together in the pews, at least we can pray together on our knees.” Graham has taken much criticism from some Protestant fundamentalist circles for this stance. Graham himself is on record as saying “I have never received a piece of hate mail from a Roman Catholic.”

A number of years ago I was helping a friend clean out an attic. In doing so I came across an old edition of the Boston Globe from around 1953 or so. I just love finding time-capsule artifacts like these. In short time I had stopped lifting boxes and had sat down to start reading. I flipped through the paper, browsing the top stories, and getting a kick out of seeing what movies were playing at the time and in which theaters, many of which I knew no longer existed. One article in particular that caught my eye was one about how Bishop Fulton Sheen had spoken in front of a packed house of nearly 16,000 people at the Boston Garden… I wondered to myself, who within the Catholic Church could pull 16,000 people into a stadium to hear him or her speak today? There are many evangelicals who could do it, but within the Catholic Church I can think of no one besides the Pope who could pull in such numbers. Do we need a Fulton J. Sheen for today? We need someone like him. I wonder how Sheen himself and his style would go over today?

Bishop Sheen was one of the most important Catholic churchmen of the twentieth century. Doctor and teacher of philosophy, National Director for the Society For the Propagation of the Faith, author of over 90 books, anti-communist cold-warrior, auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of New York, maker of high-profile Catholic converts, friend of Hollywood actors and actresses, host of the Catholic Hour radio program in the 1930’s, Bishop of Rochester, and sometimes bitter rival to Cardinal Spellman of New York, Sheen is probably remembered best for being a television pioneer with his Life Is Worth Living program in the 1950’s. Anyone who’s tuned into EWTN on a Friday night has probably caught some of the re-runs of this program, where Bishop Sheen (with his angel assistant) does a “chalk talk” up at the blackboard in a simple studio format for about a half an hour. I must say, that when I do catch one of these, I’m usually hooked to stay in for the whole program. With his piercing blue-eyed gaze, strong stage-voice delivery, charisma, sense of drama, rock-solid faith, and Irish wit and humor, his style went over very well in it’s time. I’m not so sure it would go over quite as well today.. It might seem a bit hokey today, and Bishop Sheen was the first to admit that his greatest weakness was vanity, but I think the programs hold up remarkably well over the years regardless.

Sheen had a certain way of phrasing things in couplets so that they had a certain punch and stuck in the memory, such as "If you don't behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave."
The manger and the Cross stand at two extemities of the Savior’s life! He accepted the manger because there was no room at the inn; He accepted the Cross because men said, “We will not have this Man for our king.” Disowned upon entering, rejected upon leaving. He was laid in a stranger’s stable at the beginning, and a stranger’s grave at the end. An ox and an ass surrounded His crib at Bethlehem; two thieves were to flank His Cross on Calvary. He was wrapped in swaddling bands in His birthplace, He was again laid in swaddling clothes in His tomb - clothes symbolic of the limitations imposed on His Divinity when He took on a human form…. He was already bearing His Cross - the only cross a babe could bear, a cross of poverty, exile and limitation. His sacrificial intent already shone forth in the message the angels sang to the hills of Bethlehem: Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you-the Messiah, the Lord.

On a lighter note (not to mean any disrespect), I’d have to say that one thing my post-Vat II sensibilities finds a little jarring is the cape that he wore. We’re just not used to seeing it on bishops nowadays. I can just imagine how millions of Protestants must have reacted to it too. There must have been a little bit of a “Count Dracula” effect… I find myself wondering if there were some anti-Catholic wags who felt tempted to draw mischievous comparisons between Sheen and the 1950’s R & B artist Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

A book by Bishop Sheen that I would highly recommend – Life of Christ

Cause for his Canonization


Paula said...

For me this is something new. I heard vaguely about Fulton J. Sheen.
On a lighter note: do you know what the Eastern-Orthodox priests wear during the Liturgy?:-). That cap looks pretty strange for outsiders too.

Liam said...

This is interesting post, Jeff. I know very little about Bishop Sheen. I guess I had a bit of prejudice, assuming he was a pre-Vatican II conservative, perhaps prone to the excesses of anti-communism. I looked briefly at his Wikipedia article, and it says he was opposed to the war in Vietnam, so I guess I was wrong about that.

The cape is cool.

I also agree with you about Billy Graham. There was a good article about him in the New Yorker last year.

And to quote Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise": "He is Screamin' Jay Hawkins and he my main man" (spoken by a Hungarian immigrant).

Liam said...

Also, Martin Sheen apparently took his stage name from the good bishop.

crystal said...

I didn't know much about him either, except the Martin Sheen thing :-). Perhaps that says it all, as Martin Sheen seems very progressive and has been arrested many times for peace protesting.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

Yes, we've been to a few Divine Liturgies with our Russian Orthodox friends. I've seen what they wear. :-) They spend a lot of time going back and forth behind the Icon screen too. Do you know what they're up to back there? :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

I suppose that if Bishop Sheen was to read my posts he'd probably peg me as a modernist, or tell me that I was dancing real close to the edge, but if you look at the years in which he went through his formation, which were the most intense years of the whole anti-modernist drama, it would make sense. He was a product of that time. It was what it was.

I know a lot of the pre-conciliar types claim him as one of their own, but from what I can tell he was not a Vatican II rejectionist by any means. That bit in the Wikipedia article about his opposition to the war in Viet Nam was very interesting too.

Stranger Than Paradise! I loved that movie, and the follow up to it, Down By Law. Stranger Than Paradise is the only reason whay I even know who Screamin' Jay Hawkins was. I Put A Spell On You....

As for actor James Lurie, he was a saxophonist too. Did you ever hear his jazz combo, the Lounge Lizards?

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Funny that you guys should mention Martin Sheen. Just last night I was watching him in a movie directed by his son Emilio Estevez - The War At Home. Kathy Bates was in it too. It was pretty intense.

Paula said...

Jeff, :-), i think they pray. There are prayers to be said in front of the altar which is behind the icons wall.

Liam said...

Jeff, your point about him being a man of his time is well taken.

I am a huge Jim Jarmusch fan. I also have listened to the Lounge Lizards, a long time ago.

I still say the cape is cool.

Don said...

I grew up watching Fulton Sheen. My Mom was/is a huge fan of his. I can stil remember his "chalk talk" lectures and sitting in front of the TV with my Mom and Dad.

Jeff said...

Hi Don,

The first time I saw Fulton Sheen speak, stangely enough, was a tape of him speaking in Robert Schuller's Crytsal Cathedral, of all places. His closing line:

"He's not Jesus Christ Super Star! He's Jesus Christ Super Scar!