Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"We Forgot about the Salvation of Souls" ~ Archbishop Sheen's heartfelt warning in Philadelphia, December 8, 1977

Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen speaking in Philadelphia on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1977.
On December 8, 1977, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen came to the Philadelphia area to preach to a packed house at the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Roxborough. This church is about 10 minutes from where I grew up, and I was seven years old at the time of the event. Though I didn't attend, my aunt and uncle did. This was probably the closest I ever came to Archbishop Sheen during my lifetime. It was his first talk after a six-month hiatus recovering from heart surgery.

I was recently reminded of the event by my aunt who gave me a newspaper clipping that she had saved for over 40 years. The article is a disjointed and fairly bland recounting of what must have been a stark and riveting lecture. One almost gets the sense that the reporter was bored by Sheen's presentation, or struggled to comprehend it. The article feels like it was cobbled together from hastily taken notes.

But now, 42 years later, even read through the filter of uninspired reportage, Archbishop Sheen's words radiate a sense of foreboding—a softly spoken clarion call made by an elderly Cassandra who knew well that his days were numbered.

The article appeared under a banner that read: "We Forgot About the Salvation of Souls". Then, beneath that in large type: "Small, Humble Archbishop Speaks."

Following are some excerpts from the article:
Nearly 2,000 persons silently listen to the voice that was once strong and vibrant and now still goes on bringing the word of Christ. But the voice of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is not reaching as many as he once did when millions were waiting and watching him speak on nation-wide television.... 
"The last sermon I preached was last June," he said. "Then followed a gap." He remarked that he had open heart surgery. He is now 82.
"But I am privileged to be with you on the feast of the Immaculate Conception." He was there to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.  
"Let me tell you about the changes in the Church since this parish began," he said in a soft voice.  
"In the two decades since this church was founded [that is, 1952], we have seen many changes. The Church dies and rises again. Its law is the law of Christ. There is Good Friday, then Easter and the Resurrection. 
"The Church has undergone a great many changes in the past few years. There will be many changes in the years to come. Some sisters thought it would be unbecoming to teach children. The then current word was 'involvement.' Some thought they should not be dedicated to the sanctification of souls. They said they had to be involved in the social and economic world. 
"The only thing that they thought mattered," Archbishop Sheen said, "was the social order."
From this critical opening, the Archbishop pivoted to a bit of recent history:
"In 1974, the Holy Father asked us to preach the Gospel to the people. Evangelization." The little man, a bit pale, pointed his right index finger at the huge assemblage. He said that people had little concern during some of the recent years for the Church. "They were interested in the Panama Canal, the Mideast and India. In the former decade the name of Christ was hardly named." 
"We forgot about the salvation of souls."
Here we see the prescience of Venerable Fulton Sheen on full display. But if he thought things were bad in the Church then, what would he think of our own time when entire orders of teaching sisters have evaporated, and you're more likely to see pant-suited sisters celebrated for riding a bus cross-country in support of the welfare state boondoggle du jour than for teaching children. Of course, modern-day prophet that he was, Sheen no doubt saw what was coming. Perhaps his angel was whispering in his ear.

The article as it was preserved.
At this point, Sheen again pivoted to bring the Blessed Virgin into the conversation, this being especially appropriate given the venue (IHM Parish) and the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
"The Immaculate Heart of Mary gives to us a model on how to live a life for the Church. When you love," the Archbishop warned, "you must be prepared to have your heart wrung and maybe broken. So when you love, you will have your heart broken."
This aphorism is almost word-for-word drawn from The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Most likely, Sheen cited Lewis as his source during the talk. But he applies the quote directly to the love our Lady had for her Son, Jesus:
"The Virgin Mary is the model. Mary has had her heart broken, but she loved her son and His mission. Oh, how He trained her to be a mother of all children. Oh, how Mary had to have a broken heart. How many times has she pondered those words, 'Mother, what matters is that I am doing my Father's will.'"
And by that, he didn't mean St. Joseph, of course. The article mentions here that Sheen pointed to the roof of the church and said, "There is my Father in heaven." To continue...
"Mary was taught one lesson after another about having her heart wrung. The climax was when it finally happened on the Cross. Mary was heartbroken. She surrendered her Son to the heavenly Father, sacrificed for the redemption of our sins."
"When they rammed that sword into Jesus, they also plunged it into the side of Mary. In the end, there is only one heart."
"This is the kind of love we have to have for the Church."
Did you catch that? By my interpretation, the good Archbishop was artfully interjecting a little of his own travail into the narrative. Here was a man whose heart was even then being wrung because of his love for the Church which he had served since his ordination in 1919. Here was a man who had allowed himself to be used up and burnt out in his unflagging efforts to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet here, at the end of his life, he has caught a glimpse of fell things to come, fell things already in progress within the Church. And his heart, quite literally, is broken.

Sheen continued:
"To remake the Church this is the kind of love we will have to have. We must sacrifice to prove our love. What is the mission of the Church now? Outside is the poor lost sheep. We must find them and bring them to the Lord. But if you love, you must be prepared to love and have your heart broken. I believe that the spirit of love is even descending upon Russia. After years, we have turned a corner: we can leave other things aside. 
"When the good Lord comes, he will show His wounds to the world. 
"The Church has failed in the last ten years.
"Is your heart broken?"
Part of me thinks that the good Archbishop, gifted speaker that he was, left unsaid his own implicit answer to that question: "Mine is."

In his unique, unintentionally prophetic way, Sheen was preparing all of us to have our hearts broken by the grotesque and ongoing failures of the Church that we love, failures that are more evident and horrifying than any that were known in his day. But he was also reminding us to have patience and trust in God: "The Church dies and rises again."

Two years later, on December 9, 1979, Archbishop Sheen would go to his eternal reward. He surely died of a broken heart that the ministrations of mere mortal surgeons could not mend.

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