Saturday, June 09, 2007

Fulton the Great

I’ve said it before and will say it again: for my money, American Catholicism’s greatest product was none other than Fulton J. Sheen.

As they say, if the man hadn’t existed, they would’ve had to invent him.

The legendary cleric authored some 90 books, scored the Louvain agrege with highest distinction spent almost two decades overseeing the US church’s support for the missions and (the thing he’d probably be proudest of) spent an hour of each day of his 60 years of priesthood in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. But for all that – and everything else he accomplished in his 84 years – most remember the late archbishop as their Tuesday night companion; the dynamo, first of radio and then television, who singlehandedly guided the final passage of what, not all that long before, had been a suspect, ghettoized, immigrant flock to the heart of the American mainstream.

I need look no further than my family to prove that, almost 30 years after his death, his legion of enemies long forgotten, Sheen’s impact remains, and strongly so.

While one of my aunts famously got out of her dishwashing chores by claiming that “Sister’s making us watch Bishop Sheen for homework,” even to this very day, amidst great suffering, my grandmother uses the title of his top-rated TV show as her yardstick of choice in .

“What did Bishop Sheen say?” the Boss’ll ask relatives and visitors on good days. “Life is Worth Living,” she replies, enunciating the words slowly so no one can miss the message. And when the days aren’t as good, she’ll mutter, “Bishop Sheen said ‘Life is Worth Living’”… followed by a stream of expletives.

In 1979, as John Paul II entered St Patrick’s Cathedral for the second-ever papal visit to the US, Sheen lived to see his mission validated in a rather extraordinary way. Greeting the Pope whose command of the media was even greater than his own, the ailing prelate said, “Holy Father, now I can sing my ‘Nunc dimittis.’” He died two months later, and his cause for canonization was opened in 2002.

The current episode of Salt + Light’s “Catholic Focus” features a rich retrospective on the father of modern Catholic communications; keeping with the new frontier of the great Fulton's legacy, a stream is posted. The program includes an interview with one of Sheen's many spirituals sons -- a cleric who, as a newly-ordained priest, wrote the archbishop a “fan letter” for his books and the inspiration they provided on the road to his vocation.

That cleric is now the archbishop of Toronto.