When musicians, artists and writers are interviewed, they are often asked about their influences. Now, although I’m no Bono, something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I started this blog is to share with you some of my own influences. These are the people who have made a profound impact upon me and substantially contributed to the person I am today.
In this post I would like to briefly talk about someone who has had an impact upon me and my faith fairly recently. In fact, up until nine months ago, I had never even heard of him. The person I’m talking about here is Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
An American Prophet
Those Americans reading this, particularly those of my parents’ generation, will almost certainly be familiar with this moniker and with the man himself. As someone brought up in England, however, and one who was only born the year after this great man died, I was completely ignorant of his existence and legacy.
Very early on in his life, Archbishop Sheen gained renown as a theologian, but rose to public prominence in 1930 when he hosted a radio programme called “The Catholic Hour”, which he did for twenty years. After this, he moved into television, presenting “Life is worth living” for six years and finally “The Fulton Sheen Program” for another seven. All these shows were extremely popular and if you watch his appearance on “What’s my line”, you start to get a sense of how much he was loved by the public. He even won an Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality”.
Although until recently I couldn’t have told you anything about Archbishop Sheen, I could vaguely recall hearing his name occasionally mentioned on Catholic Answers, so when I received an invitation to see a film about his life I decided to go along to see what all the fuss was about:
This movie was made in an effort to support the cause for his canonization and, over the course of watching it, I really started to warm to Sheen. In many ways he seemed like such an odd fellow, with his cape, his Shakespearian method of oratory and his wry sense of humour. Yet, there was something I found strangely compelling about his presence on the screen. After I came home I watched some of his preaching on YouTube and eventually found a complete MP3 library of his sermons and started to work my way through them. Something that I consistently found was that, no matter the topic of the sermon, he approached the subject in a way I would never have even considered.
I decided that I wanted to know more about this man’s life and so I bought “Treasure in clay“, the autobiography he wrote at the end of his life. Within its pages I saw many of the events which had shaped his life and which at some point had made it into his sermons. I also discovered a few details that made me extremely happy. For example, I found out that, for a time, he was assistant to the pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Soho Square, a church I visited several times while I was living in London. Also, he was a bi-ritual priest, also celebrating the Byzantine Liturgy, something which is also very close to my heart.
Perhaps the most important thing that came across from reading his autobiography was that this man had given his entire life to Jesus. He gave himself tireless to the service of Christ and His Bride. He went where he was sent, he preached tirelessly and lived simply. During his lifetime he received a good deal of opposition even from within the Church, yet bore it gracefully. In the final years of his life he suffered cardiac problems and had open heart surgery in 1977 before dying in 1979.
In most of the pictures of Sheen he is looking commanding, joyous or philosophical. However, the image which sticks with me the most is of an occasion when, a couple of months before his death, he was embraced by Pope John-Paul II at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral. In this embrace he received the benediction that I think every priest hopes to be worthy of hearing:
“You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church”
I’d like to conclude this post by inviting you to watch a section of the video of Fulton Sheen’s last Good Friday homily, recorded in 1979, the final year of his earthly life. You can see the strain that surgery had put upon his body. His words are haunting, particularly given that these come at the end of a life dedicated to the service to His crucified King:
“Show me your hands. have you a scar from giving? A scar of sacrificing yourself for another? Show me your feet. Have you gone about doing good? Were you wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?” – Archbishop Fulton Sheen