My World of Religion, Politics, Entertainment and Social Issues

If you are visiting my blog, expecting to see 'Toward a Progressive Catholic Church,' I have changed my title to reflect my wide assortment of interests. Having retired from my secular job, I hope to devote the rest of my life to my hobbies, ministries and perhaps a part-time job that makes good use of my communications skills. This blog will be designed to address my multi-faceted interests.

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Location: Rochester, New York, United States

I have an M.A. in Theology and an M.Div (Master of Divinity) from St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. I am currently a media consultant and promoter of classical music. I am also certified as an officiant by the Federation of Christian Ministries for baptisms, weddings and funerals and minister independently of the Rochester Diocese. My life has encompassed many interesting paths: broadcasting, free-lance writing, video-production, music, ministry and a secular job in government. In addition to this blog, I have a YouTube site at www.youtube.com/priestray and I have a Facebook page.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Canonization of Fulton J. Sheen

As I continue to work toward reform initiatives in the Roman Catholic Church, it may seem strange to some that I am promoting the canonization of Fulton J. Sheen, especially since he is often linked with conservative Catholic philosophies. I would nevertheless argue that he was a trailblazer in terms of bringing Catholicism out of the shadows and into the mainstream media. In this regard, it is amusing to note that a few well-known conservative members of the hierarchy tried to take Sheen off the airwaves in the 1940s and 1950s, for they felt he was drawing too much attention to himself. However, in the end, even they came to realize that he was probably a good asset toward inter-religious dialogue, especially since his popular weekly television program was viewed by persons of all faiths.

What follows is my argument for Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's canonization:

As we analyze the movers and shakers of Catholicism during the twentieth century, I would argue that Fulton J. Sheen gave the Catholic Church a much-needed boost. He also set the stage for what was to become a major ecumenical movement. Furthermore, he helped to heal old wounds between Catholics and Jews, which was perhaps highlighted when he was invited to speak in the late 1960s during a sabbath service at a synagogue in Rochester, New York. In short, this kindly archbishop was a voice of reason and reconciliation in an age when turmoil and violence threatened to shatter our world. He also helped to counteract messages of hate on the radio from the likes of Charles Coughlin, a priest who ended up being an embarrassment to the Catholic Church.

Unlike the many commercial sites on the web that are set up to sell merchandise tied to Fulton Sheen, my objective is to simply relate a couple personal stories that will hopefully inspire others to join the effort toward canonizing the man many affectionately referred to as "Uncle Fultie", a nickname earned as a result of his beating "Uncle Miltie" (Milton Berle) in the television ratings.

I feel blessed in that I grew up in a mixed religious environment. My mother's side of the family was a mixture of Irish Catholics and Protestants, while my father's side of the family is Jewish. While there can certainly be differences in such an environment, one man seemed to draw us together during the 1950s. His name was Fulton J. Sheen. I will never forget sitting as a family, watching attentively as Sheen gave his lively talks.

This reflection is just as much about my late grandmother as it is about Fulton Sheen. Dorothy Cecelia Burke was very influential in my faith development. While I was only twelve years old when she died, she had much to do with my conversion to Catholicism late in life. Before she married my grandfather, Franklin L. Dodge, she was raised by the Furlong family of Rochester, New York. (Her parents, William Burke and Maud Grady, Irish immigrants, gave her to the Furlongs so that she could experience a good life in America.) Dorothy's step-sister, Phoebe Furlong, became a Sister of Mercy (Sister Mary Clarissa). One of my fondest memories of my grandmother concerns Fulton J. Sheen. He had a great influence on her and she loved to discuss his T.V. programs. Before she died in 1962, she told me she would be with me always. (I believe she has kept her promise.) The stories that follow illustrate this point:

I usually don't relate these stories publicly, but I feel that I would not be alive today if it hadn't been for two miraculous interventions. In the first instance, I was riding my bicycle, two weeks following the death of my grandmother. I went through a stop sign and crashed head-on into a car. Witnesses told me that I flew at least thirty feet in the air. I recall landing on what appeared to be a pocket of air. Onlookers were amazed that I was not hurt. (I recall having a sense that my grandmother was present.) The second incident occurred in 1976. I worked three jobs that year to make ends meet. On one particular evening, I was driving home late at night when I fell asleep at the steering wheel. I crashed into a utility pole, which split in two upon impact. The top half of the pole fell on top of my car, demolishing it. There was only a small space for me to crawl out of the car. I managed to do so and then walked to the nearest police station to report the accident. The police told me they had already dispatched two patrol cars to the accident scene, not aniticipating that I could have survived. (I only had a scratch on my chin.)

If I have been reluctant to tell these stories in the past, it is because I realize that many people more righteous than myself have been killed in accidents. To use another analogy, if an airplane crashes with 100 people on board and 50 die, it doesn't mean that the 50 who survived are any more righteous than those who perished. Yet, my survival defies a rational explanation. If my grandmother did indeed intervene, Fulton J. Sheen had much to do with her 'angelic' state. In a related sense, I often tell people that my conversion to Catholicism late in life was due in large part to the influence that both Fulton Sheen and my grandmother had on my life.

I regret that I did not know Fulton Sheen during his tenure as Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York (1966-1969). However, I recall feeling honored by his presence. Unfortunately, he came to Rochester during a difficult period. It was at the tail end of Vatican II, culminating in sharp divisions between local Catholics. Some were determined to keep the Church the way it was prior to Vatican II reforms. For others, the reforms were not moving swifly enough. Fulton Sheen was in the uncomforable position of having to balance the opposite objectives. This was also a difficult time for St. Bernard's Seminary, for enrollment was down dramatically. To Sheen's credit, he envisioned a time when graduate-level theology courses would be available to the laity. His vision proved to be prophetic, for in 1981, St. Bernard's Seminary closed its doors and the school moved to the campus of Colgate Divinity School as St. Bernard's Institute and just recently moved to its own location in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford and has taken on the new name of St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. (I received both an M.A. in Theology and an M.Div. from St. Bernard's and am currently contemplating doctoral studies.)

Aside from the frictions between conservatives and liberals, Fulton Sheen also faced a leadership crisis with local priests, who were not used to his style of leadership. In retrospect, I believe a more cordial relationship could have been worked out, but Sheen had enough of Rochester after three years. However, on the bright side, he willed many of his belongings to the Rochester Diocese, inclusive of his vestments, recordings, books, etc.

While some have identified Fulton Sheen as a conservative, others have testified to a liberal side in his approach to Catholicism. It is not my intention to enter in this debate. However, I like to think he would be sympathetic to a cause I have been promoting for the past couple years. Those who know me well are aware of the fact that I have been lobbying for an end to mandatory celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood. While Sheen may have been opposed to such a suggestion during his lifetime, he cared a great deal about the state of the priesthood. Therefore, I like to believe he would be distressed over the current shortage of clergy and the great amount of stress placed on the few priests we have. Accordingly, I will pray that Sheen, in his own way, will lend his wisdom to the celibacy debate.

Considering the huge influence Fulton Sheen had on my grandmother, Dorothy C. Burke, I can think of no greater tribute to "Uncle Fultie" than to offer this modest tribute to him.

The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Archives

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the sixth bishop of Rochester and an internationally recognized writer and preacher, designated St. Bernard's as the repository of his books, papers, and memorabilia.

The Sheen Archives now contain a complete collection of the more than 90 books published by the Archbishop (with translations of some works in eight languages), his 2500 volume personal library, several hundred audio cassettes, about 200 video recordings of his telecasts, together with other effects that form a legacy of enduring significance.

The collection is housed at the Diocesan Archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester. http://www.dor.org/Archives/special.htm

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