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Fulton J. Sheen: prophetic inspiration for today's new evangelisation
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen died in 1979 at the age of 84. Now, twenty years later, the Catholic world is beginning to look at him again, not just because he was a great orator and communicator, but because his public evangelising helps us understand how to face the serious situation in which the Church finds herself today, in an increasingly secularised society.
Truly Fulton Sheen was an evangeliser. This word has only become part of our Catholic vocabulary in very recent years. Recent popes have spoken of the need for the Church to evangelise, and our present Holy Father has frequently spoken of the importance of what he calls the "New Evangelisation", that is, the re- evangelisation of post-Christian society through new methods appropriate for the times.
If we need to evangelise, then obviously we need evangelisers. Archbishop Fulton Sheen was such a one long before the term was common.
After seminary studies in the United States the newly ordained Fr Fulton Sheen obtained a degree in philosophy at the famous Louvain University in Belgium, and a degree in theology in Rome at the Angelicum and Gregorian Universities.
Returning to his diocese in Peoria, Illinois, he worked in a city parish for a while before being appointed to the Graduate School of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. So began his career of academic teaching and lecturing, and his move into apologetics and public speaking.
Fr Sheen spoke in churches, at Church congresses, at major religious events like the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney in 1948, and on street corners as a member of the Catholic Evidence Guild. Incidentally, when he went to Sydney, 40,000 people turned up inside and outside the Cathedral.
His television programs were watched by as many non-Catholics as Catholics, and he received more mail from non-Catholics than from Catholics.
He used to say that radio was like the Old Testament, hearing without seeing, whereas television was like the New Testament, hearing and seeing, because Jesus the Messiah had come amongst us. Radio afforded the opportunity of direct teaching. Television was more indirect, communicating the message through images, stories and, like Jesus himself, parables.
As one who has to speak often in public, I have taken a close interest in his methods, especially his practice of not speaking from notes. He describes his method of preparation, whether for an academic lecture or for a sermon or homily. He would read around the topic. He would consult Holy Scripture. He prayed about it before the Blessed Sacrament and prepared his initial written notes there in the church or chapel. He would leave the talk for a while. Coming back to it he would alter the sequence, add further insights, check the point in his mind, pray about it again until, as he says, "I learned the lecture from the inside out, not from the outside in". He absorbed the talk or homily so much that it became part of him, it came from within, not from his head.
What I have not even attempted to do is to copy Fulton Sheen's style. He had a personal gift for oratory and communication that was unique. We have not seen his equal. There are many tele-evangelists today who have great talent for preaching and for using the television medium. I have not yet seen a Catholic presenter to rival them, except for Fulton Sheen, who was the first, and in my view, still the greatest.
Fulton Sheen usually began with a joke, and lightened the atmosphere a few times during his talks with humour. He said that you had to keep the audience on side - feeling they are with you, not inferior or feeling talked-down to. Humour helped.
I was interested in the advice that Fulton Sheen received from the great Cardinal Mercier of Louvain about teaching. "I will give you two suggestions," he said, "always keep current: know what the modern world is thinking about, read its poetry, its history, its literature, observe its architecture and its art, hear its music and its theatre, and then plunge deeply into St Thomas and the wisdom of the ancients and you will be able to refute its errors."
I wonder if the good Cardinal would encourage us, with the same enthusiasm, to read some of today's literature, see today's art, listen to its music and go to some of the theatre available in this city of Perth. Nevertheless, the advice is sound - know your audience.
The second suggestion: "Tear up your notes at the end of each year. There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition of the same course the following year".
I mentioned that Fulton Sheen was a public Catholic evangeliser. He is among the very few that we have had or have today.
When we look at the great preachers in Europe like St Dominic, we see that they preached in an already Christian context. They presumed faith in calling the people back to prayer and the conversion of life.
Today in the Western World we are faced with a new situation. We cannot presume faith. Most of the people in Europe and Australia are only nominally Christian. Atheism is on the rise. Religion is pushed to the edge of a secular society where governments make policies based on a purely secular ethic, where matters of morality and truth are determined by majority vote or strong lobbies, in which God or Christian principles have no role to play.
This is a truly missionary situation for which we need new missionaries ready to evangelise afresh.
A recent booklet issued by the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, entitled The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, observes that "large numbers of the baptised have abandoned following Christ and live by the tenets of relativism. In many instances, the role of the Christian faith is reduced to that of a purely cultural factor, often limited to a merely private sphere, and without any social relevance in individual or national life" (p. 12). It adds: "As the second millennium after Christ's coming comes to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that (the Mission of Christ the Redeemer) is still only beginning" (p. 11).
Archbishop Fulton Sheen knew this already in the 30s. He knew he could not simply preach to the converted, but had to go out into the streets, the universities, the world of radio and television, the world of mass publication, to call the world to conversion.
That is why he is so relevant today, an outstanding example of what we desperately need - holy and effective evangelisers in the public eye. Where are they? Perhaps the renewed interest in Fulton Sheen will encourage people of talent, priests, religious and lay people to come forward.
Fulton Sheen, the evangeliser, led many to conversion. He reflected much on St Paul in setting his missionary goals. He spoke often of St Paul's conversion on the way to Damascus and believed that conversion was possible for any person whatsoever, even the most unlikely, because conversion is a response to the action of the Holy Spirit, not the evangeliser.
He thought of St Paul preaching to the Greek intelligentia on the Aereogapus in Athens, and how he entered their world to speak of the unknown God - the Father of Jesus the Saviour. He was particulariy impressed with Ephesus and St Paul's stay of three years there, particularly his courage in speaking to the people in the famous amphitheatre of Ephesus.
Fulton Sheen expected to be rejected and opposed as Jesus and St Paul were. Instead, he found that his message was welcomed by people who did not know where to turn for meaning in their lives.
Bella Dodd was the lawyer of the Communist party during the McCarthy era. She was militant, able and convincing. She was persuaded to meet Fulton Sheen because he lectured on Communism, on Marx and Lenin. After their conversation, which got nowhere, Fulton Sheen asked her to go to the chapel with him while he said a prayer. She silently began to cry. God touched her heart. Later she was instructed and received into the Church by Fulton Sheen.
He ran convert classes of fifty to one hundred people. He brought into the Church drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, businesspeople, flight attendants, students and professors - wherever he went, he evangelised. He even brought the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler, into the Church.
Pope Pius XII once asked him how many converts he had made. He answered: "Your Holiness, I have never counted them. I am always afraid if I did count them, I might think I made them, instead of the Lord."
How did this man remain so utterly committed to his vocation? Did he ever take a break, have doubts, transgress? This I do not know, but he would have had to deal with his own weaknesses more or less successfully like all of us.
The source of his strength and his untiring self-giving came from his daily hour before the Blessed Sacrament, which he never once missed from the day of his ordination to the priesthood. Unbelievable but true!
From those hours of intimacy with the Lord, he deepened his love for Him and followed Him as faithfully as any Apostle or Disciple. Every priest should dwell on his powerful example.
He also had a very tender and deep love for the Blessed Virgin Mary whom he referred to as "the woman I love". It needs to be said that this eminent and intellectual man, this public figure, was always faithful to saying his "three Hail Marys" each day.
His open-heart surgery in 1977 marked a deepening of his spiritual life. Being very close to death made him cling more closely to Jesus his Lord. He began to divest himself of possessions and unnecessary things in order to be free to be united with Christ.
At this same period in his life he was not permitted a smooth tranquil time, nor any great sense of achievement. He began to see trends in the Church which in his view were completely against the true intentions of the Second Vatican Council, at which he was present, and would seriously damage the Church and lead to a loss of faith.
He poured out his anguish in his retreats to priests, pleading with them to arrest the decline of the Church and return to the solid truth. Sometimes he spoke out in great anger at the destruction of religious life and the secularisation of the clergy, particularly under the guise of "psychological growth". All this was part of his purification. He had to place his trust implicitly in God, to trust that others who came after him would be open to the Holy Spirit, tackle the errors of the day, and continue to preach the Gospel of conversion and new life.
On a personal note, I met the then Bishop Sheen in 1952, when I was a student at Propaganda Fide College in Rome. He came to our College and spoke to us. I remember being impressed by his powerful preaching, wishing I could one day make an impact like that.
One last story is told by Fulton Sheen himself, in his autobiography. "In the early days when I was on national radio, a man came into St Patrick's Cathedral one Monday morning and, not recognising me, said: "Father, I want to go to Confession. I commute from Westchester every day. I had three friends with me - all Protestants. I became very angry and spoke most disparagingly and bitterly of that young priest that is on radio, Dr Fulton Sheen. I just cannot stand him. He drives me crazy. I am afraid that I probably scandalised those men by the way I talked about a priest. So, will you hear my confession?" I said: "My good man, I don't think you committed a serious sin. There are moments in my life when I share exactly the same opinion about Dr Sheen that you do. Go to Communion and reserve your confession for another day." He left very happily, saying: 'It certainly is wonderful to meet a nice priest'" (p. 298).
This is the edited text of Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth's Inaugural Lecture of the Fulton J. Sheen Society of Western Australia, given on 9 December 1999.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 2 (March 2000), p. 12
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