Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Same Night, New Sheen

So I spent most of tonight with the Boss. Nothing was recorded -- per usual, it was a couple hours of laughs as I swam through the customary sea of unprintables which flow from her mouth.... Gotta love it.

However, one confluence of note for these pages struck me. More than just sometimes, as she did tonight, Gram pulls out one of her many favorite quotes: "What did Bishop Sheen say? 'Life is worth living!'"

Once upon a time, on this night of the week, first on radio and then in the glow of television, Fulton Sheen entered the fray to teach, enlighten, nourish and uplift the spirits of anyone who cared to tune in from the comfort of their living rooms.

In droves -- both Catholic and non -- they did, and as none before or since, the son of Peoria with the Louvain agrege captivated a nation with the message of his church, bringing it even further into the mainstream of American life and shaping the identity of an age in ways which resonate to this day.

(After all, class, you do know who Ramón Estévez is, don't you?)

In my humble estimation, what Sheen did in US Catholicism's greatest epoch makes him the most influential American Catholic of all time. He presented the best face of the church -- one which was welcoming, accessible and, most importantly of all, relevant and human. His presence of warmth, empathy and joy made him the nation's priest, and his contributions yielded much fruit for the church and society, both in this land and beyond.

After Sheen, thinking that its work had been accomplished, the church in the US got satisfied with itself, fell into a void, and failed to cultivate the goodwill his ministry went a long way toward making possible. The popular captivation only continued, however, and the vacuum which sprung up allowed it to be filled in our own time by... Dan Brown.

And how grateful we are for that.

The Da Vinci Code insanity of these days -- a painful debacle born from the church's focus on internecine cannibalism at the cost of its engagement with the world outside its walls -- should serve as an unmistakable clarion call that Fulton's place needs to be filled, desperately, especially in today's world of hyper-media.

Luckily for us, we've got our man in James Martin, SJ.

An associate editor of America and author of the raptly-received My Life with the Saints, Fr Martin has proven himself a draw, even in areas known for something less than a love for the church. Given Benedict XVI's recent praise for the Society of Jesus' role in the "dialogue with modern culture," Martin's emergence as an in-demand commentator on things Catholic has provided a unique collision between a much-needed charism in today's omnimedia environment, and the personality it takes to execute it to its best possible result.

On this, the night in which Fulton Sheen served as one of the first examples of "appointment television," Martin was invited to offer a commentary for National Public Radio's All Things Considered -- his second appearance there in two months -- speaking to the moment's hot topic. (There's audio at that thar link.)

To think: if Jim's line were taken up by the Bosses, the church would be a lot better off.... No man may be a prophet in his own country, but it's not too late to change that.