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Bishop Sheen Comes To My Home Town

January 20, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

The 1960s counterculture movement did much to undo many traditional social values, especially those regarding personal relationships and human community. It served as a kind of stage rehearsal for the 1970s, which Tom Wolfe aptly dubbed “The Me Decade.” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, launched the decade which gave us, in 1973, the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion. It was perhaps the best of times and the worst of times for Bishop Fulton J. Sheen to arrive in our fair town of Kitchener, Ontario, to remind us of higher values.
In retrospect, Sheen’s appearance was a blessed event. This could not have been known at the time. Many viewed Sheen as a celebrity and little more. As he approached the stage, he was accompanied by the strains of Jesus Christ Superstar, a sour note that gave him an opportunity to set the record straight. He informed his audience that neither he nor Christ whom he represented was a “superstar.” Christ, in particular, is not a cultural icon, a symbol of strength, or a superpower. He is our Savior who died on the cross for our sins.
The world is enamored with power and assumes that anything that is great owes its greatness to its power. This is why Superman had to be invented, along with all those other fictional heroes who have powers that go far beyond those of us poor mortals. Toronto-born Joe Shuster was the creator of Superman, the visitor from the planet Krypton who could fly, and was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive.
Those enraptured with the image of the Man of Steel can only dream that such power could be theirs. Imagine a football player who scores a touchdown every time he gets his hands on the ball or a soldier who can defeat an army of criminals all by himself! Superman belongs to a world of dreams. Bishop Sheen was on hand to talk about what we should do while we are awake.
As is the case with any popular fiction, it must be built on some truth. In our more candid moments, we acknowledge that our personal lives are in disarray and our social life is a mess. Therefore, our only hope must come from the outside. As finite fallible beings we are unable to rectify our problems all by ourselves. Shakespeare expresses the notion forcefully in King Lear:

“If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses
It will come,
Humanity must prey upon itself
Like monsters of the deep.”

Christ comes from Heaven, but arrives not as a paragon of power, but as a babe. In Moods and Truths Sheen amplifies the true meaning of greatness: “Greatness is not in muscles, in gold, nor in educational institutions, nor in anything that strikes the eye. In consists in something that requires almost a new sense to appreciate. Greatness is not something external to man himself. Greatness is a quality of the heart and mind and soul by which man conquers not so much the tides of the sea, as the tides of his passion.”
In his book, Those Mysterious Priests, he states: “The very acceptance of littleness becomes the highest expression of His Divinity.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to adapt Christ to the world. Christ, however, wants to adapt Himself to our hearts.
The good bishop had a message for his audience, one that was for them in a very special way. He was not concerned with entertaining them, but hoping to transmit a light that would illuminate their souls. By eschewing any hint of greatness, he wanted each member of his audience to be great in his own spiritual way, and thus become closer to God.
The secular notion of greatness involves acting on the outside. And so, we are dazzled by the extraordinary performances of athletes and enshrine the most prolific of them into the Hall of Fame and are less impressed by the love that is transmitted from neighbor to neighbor. We are impressed by the power of technology, while ignoring the development of our own interior. We are impressed by how Superman can move mountains, but have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount.
Christ works on the inside through grace. That is Bishop Sheen’s essential message. We would like to be mild-mannered Clark Kents who, when the need arises, are transformed in a telephone booth into Supermen. Yet, a more realistic and deeper transformation can occur in a confessional.
Jesus Christ Superstar has become largely a thing of the past. Bishop Sheen’s message to his audience of Kitchenerites may have been brief, but his legacy continues to grow. He was preaching a truth, though at a time when the world was captured by a mood. Catholics look forward with joy to the beatification of Fulton J. Sheen, which was sadly postponed but is still coming. His message has become a monument.
Bishop Sheen, who received the title of archbishop upon his retirement, passed from this world in 1979 of heart failure at the age of 84. That was the second year after his open-heart surgery, and he had been confined to bed for many months. During that time he instructed four converts and validated two marriages. At the close of his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, he states, with a touch of wry humor for which he was well known, that “the horizontal apostolate may sometimes be just as effective as the vertical.”
Ministering from a deathbed is not what we would expect from a superstar. But it is what we do expect from a saint.

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(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How to Navigate Through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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