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Books blog: Keeping the memory of Archbishop Fulton Sheen alive

Archbishop Fulton Sheen (CNS)

Last night I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound on DVD. Made in 1945, it has moments of suspense but generally it now seems rather clunky and dated. This is because Hitchcock relied heavily on Freudian theory in his plotline – the story of how a “paranoid amnesiac imposter” (played by Gregory Peck) is cured by a beautiful female psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman). To cure people of their phobias, obsessions and irrational behaviour in those days it was the fashion to make them lie on a couch and tell the doctor all about their dreams and fantasies, as a way of “unlocking” past trauma. Bergman is nothing if not dutiful towards this Freudian dogma.

As with all heresies, Freud had grasped some elements of the truth of the human psyche, but then turned them into his own comprehensive, reductive system. It so happened that at the same time as watching the film I was reading a book called Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend by Mgr Hilary C Franco (women are good at multi-tasking, after all). I read that in the 1950s, when Sheen was making his memorable TV series, Life is Worth Living, he was criticised by a famous American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, for stating that “beneath a complex is a sin.” Fulton Sheen would have no truck with any ideology that ignored fundamental Christian teaching: that we are sinners and to be truly healed we require God’s mercy.

The book on Bishop Sheen by Franco (recently published by New Hope Publications) is a charming, very personal memoir of a young priest’s meeting with the famous bishop in 1959 and their subsequent friendship, which lasted until Sheen’s death in 1979. Without being hagiographic, Mgr Franco is in no doubt that his “mentor and friend” was a very holy man, whose life was centred on bringing the good news of the Gospels to as many people as he could, whether in his celebrated TV series or in random encounters in the street or in restaurants. For Sheen, every person who came up to him and stated their disbelief in God was a soul to be saved.

Franco repeats one well-known story of an incident when Sheen was spending some time at St Patrick’s, Soho Square. He was praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament (as he did for an hour, every day of his priestly life) when he heard the sound of someone vomiting outside the church. It turned out to be a young, very drunk female model – a lapsed Catholic. Overcoming her reluctance to talk by promising he wouldn’t ask her to go to confession, Sheen invited her into the church and helped her to become more presentable. Then he took her round the church, pointing out its devotional features.

As they went down one aisle they passed a confessional and Sheen, without speaking, gently but firmly propelled the young woman inside. That moment became the significant encounter of her life; she made a full confession, mended her ways and finally became a nun. What priest in today’s atmosphere of suspicion of the cloth coupled with insistence on individual rights would dare do as Sheen did?

Mgr Franco’s book is also revelatory of what happened to the Church in the US after Vatican II. When Sheen became Bishop of Rochester, New York, between the years 1966-1969, he saw at first hand the malaise within the Church: mass defections from the priesthood and religious life and defective seminary selection and training. Indeed, he once refused to ordain several young men whom he saw were not suited to the priesthood. He realised that, if ordained, they would only cause trouble in the Church at a later date. Franco also relates that Sheen was deeply troubled by the calibre of his fellow-bishops: “He saw the weaknesses of a good number of bishops, weaknesses which undermined their authority as successors of Christ’s apostles. At this critical time [1970], he found bishops who were avoiding problems and difficult decisions, delegating their authority to others, failing to teach and discipline, listening to bad advisors and demonstrating apathy. “So many are afraid of being unloved” he told me.” It sounds a prophetic comment on the Church today.

For those who want to keep the memory of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen alive and who are anxious for his cause for beatification to go ahead, this book provides some illuminating glimpses of the man who, once asked by Franco why he had become a priest, simply answered that it was love of Christ: “I was called to tell this story”, he said, “I never tire of telling it…I love my calling.”

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