Sunday, December 9, 2012

The unconventional bishop

Reposting for Bishop Sheen's memorial: December 9th, 1979

Sheen quotes:

• "The Soviet Union is like the Cross without Christ, while American culture is like Christ without the Cross."

• "Fasting detaches you from this world. Prayer reattaches you to the next world."

His Inspiration: A Chinese Girl

Thirty-two years ago, on December 9th, 1979, Bishop Fulton Sheen had passed on to his heavenly reward. Commonly known was his devotion to the Blessed Eucharist. There was one particular story, however, that inspired Fulton Sheen to commit at least one hour daily (known as a “Holy Hour”) in prayer before the our Eucharistic Lord. He retold it time and time again in order to show that heroism can come from the most unlikely people. Here, Reverend Martin Lucia recounts the details of Sheen’s story:

“He [Bishop Sheen] explained that when the Communists took over China, they imprisoned a priest in his own rectory near the Church. After they locked him up in his own house, the priest was horrified to look out of his window and see the Communists proceed into the Church, where they went into the sanctuary and broke into the tabernacle. In an act of hateful desecration, they took the ciborium and threw it on the floor with all of the Sacred Hosts spilling out. The priest knew exactly the number of Hosts in the ciborium; thirty-two.

When the Communists left, they either did not notice, or didn't pay any attention to a small girl praying in the back of the Church who saw everything that had happened. That night the little girl came back.

Slipping past the guard at the priest's house, she went inside the Church. There she made a holy hour of prayer, an act of love to make up for the act of hatred. After her holy hour she went into the sanctuary, knelt down, bent over and with her tongue received Jesus in Holy Communion, since (at that time) it was not permissible for laymen to touch the Sacred Host with their hands.

The little girl continued to come back each night to make her holy hour and receive Jesus in Holy Communion on her tongue. On the thirty-second night, after she had consumed the last and thirty-second host, she accidentally made a noise and woke the guard who was sleeping. He ran after her, caught her, and beat her to death with the butt of his rifle. This act of heroic martyrdom was witnessed by the priest as he watched grief-stricken from his bedroom window.”

This story of a heroic Chinese girl who loved our Eucharistic Lord inspired a devotion that lasted for decades. From the hundreds, if not, thousands of hours spent praying and meditating before the tabernacle, our Lord managed to conform this man of God into his own image. As a result, Fulton Sheen turned out to be no ordinary Bishop. Yves Congar, Dominican theologian and French Cardinal, said, “There are those who simply live according to the expectations and habits of their social group. They maintain the established ways of the milieu." On the other hand, there are “some people have experienced a kind of revelation, a new birth; they have discovered a new personal set of values and a kind of change have come over their lives.” This latter description applied to Fulton Sheen. Like the Saints, he was twice-born and led by the Spirit into uncharted waters. Sometimes his actions ran contrary to the social conventions of his day.

Breaking with Etiquette:

Take, for instance, the following story I heard sixteen or seventeen years ago. Keep in mind I am drawing strictly from my memory.

The good bishop once said that cowards who never venture- by going out on a limb and taking risks with great trust in God –do not really know Christ. Like the great Saints of old, Sheen ventured and took risks; not recklessly by testing God unnecessarily but by acting on the bold instincts of faith when loss was a distinct possibility.

In any case, Patrick Coffin, a former classmate of mine at Franciscan University of Steubenville (1994-1996) and who is now talk show host for Catholics Answers, once told me that Bishop Fulton Sheen would walk into Communist dinner parties uninvited. Evidently, prominent Communists would attend these dinners. Nevertheless, Sheen would simply walk up to the podium and start quoting from highly respected Communists sources. In order to illustrate the absurdity of Marxism, he would cite contradictory passages from the writings of Marx and Lenin; this he would do with regard to the most important political and economic topics. After making his point he would then excuse himself and leave the premise.

I like that! I respect a man who ventures into enemy territory to speak the truth; not in order to offend, but in order to save. This is an act of love made possible by the spirit of sacrifice. Even his enemies had to admire this. And I might add one thing. How many of us would walk into a Mosque in order to bear witness to Christ? The hazards of doing so is not unlike what Sheen did with the Communist dinner parties. They were every bit as ruthless as the Jihadists are.

Speaking of enemies, due to this public and repeated denunciation of Communism, he merited being a number-one target on the KGB list. He was even a consultant for J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the 1940’s and possibly into the 1950’s. Given the danger, he still refused to have bodyguards. On his nationally televised show, Life is Worth Living, he would speak directly to the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Joseph Stalin, and later to his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, and inform them about the intrinsic evil of Communism. He challenged them, not behind closed doors, but publicly on national television.

Critics might respond by saying, “Well yea, how hard is it to challenge a foreign dictator, especially one he’ll never see in his lifetime?” Bishop Fulton Sheen did not reserve his criticism of powerful men when he knew it was safe to do so. In fact, during one of their disagreements, he told U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his face that he was not intimidated by his power. Years later, at a National Prayer Breakfast, he reminded President Jimmy Carter, who was in attendance, that he too was a sinner.

His candor not only kicked in with politicians outside the Church, but it was equally applied to his brethren in the priesthood. For him, feelings never stood in the way of a soul that needed to hear saving truth.

For instance, Bishop Sheen had led a retreat for priests one weekend. One of the talks he gave was on the Real Presence of the Eucharist. One priest in attendance evidently was struggling with his faith. Indeed, he had a hard time believing that Jesus Christ was really present- body, blood, soul and divinity –under the appearance of bread and wine. After expressing his doubts, Bishop Sheen explained the doctrine of the Real Presece to the priest in a variety of ways. When that did not help assuage the doubts of the priest, with a keen spiritual instinct, Sheen abruptly asked him in an accusatory manner: “Is she a blond or a brunette?” Becoming indignant, the priest responded by asking what the bishop meant. Bishop Sheen then clarified his question: “Is the woman you are now with a blond or a brunette?” Absolutely incensed, and in so many words, the priest retorted back, “How dare you accuse me of being with a woman!!” Then he stormed off. The next day the doubting priest, who was deeply offended by the accusation the day before, approached Bishop Sheen and said, “She is a blond.” This good bishop understood that the moral blight of sexual sin dims the light of spiritual truth. He was able to connect the dots in a moments notice.

Never Overlooked the Individual

Although Bishop Fulton Sheen attracted crowds and big audiences, and although he knew popes, presidents and celebrities, he never lost sight of the importance of the individual person.

A dear aunt of mine went to hear the bishop speak in Dodge City, Kansas in the early 1970’s. She was sitting with her son right in the middle of a good size audience. After the talk, she had an opportunity to speak with him. And wouldn’t you know it? Bishop Sheen knew exactly where she was sitting. He even pointed in the general direction as to where she sat. Such keen attention to what seems to be minor details made him personable to people.

He was also quite willing to leave the allure of cameras and the media in order to minister to souls in need of Christ. One such time was an anniversary (probably the 75th anniversary) celebration of St. Mary’s Cathedral in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois. He had decided to go. As such, the media and large crowds attended as well. Right outside the cathedral, when talking to the press, Bishop Fulton Sheen noticed a lady. She looked to be spiritually distressed. He then told one of the priest’s leading the celebrations that he needed to bring this lady to him. Puzzled over his request, the priest notified the lady that she was to meet the bishop in one of the side rooms in the cathedral. She complied. Sheen’s instincts were confirmed. The distressed lady was borderline suicidal and on the verge of a divorce. He heard her confession and she regained her strength and hope. The good bishop then went outside to continue to answer questions from the media.

At whatever speaking engagement, Bishop Sheen was always fond talking- not so much with the “important people” who were in attendance –but the ordinary man and the lowly. Whether it be the paraplegic in a wheel chair who needed consolation or a maintenance man who needed a few questions answered, Sheen was willing to make time for them. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, he never was enamored with the glitter of big crowds so as to forget the individual person. The contagion of fame never affected him that way.

Speaking of the paraplegic, there was a paraplegic woman at one his talks. He took notice of her. After he finished speaking, he approached her and asked if she understood the mystery of her suffering. She answered in the negative. He then promised to write her everyday explaining the Passion of Christ and the mystery of suffering. He did just that. From that correspondence, the paraplegic woman came to understand that God was using her suffering for a great purpose.

A Wisconsin Friend of the Bishop:

On June 9th, 2010 I went to visit a friend from my parish, here in Wisconsin. She had developed a good friendship with Fulton Sheen in the 1970’s. To make a long story short, he agreed to come to the Green Bay area to give a talk in 1971 or 1972. He ended up staying with this family (the member of whom is a friend of mine) at their house. As such, they were privileged with the duty to pick him up from the airport. To their surprise, Bishop Sheen insisted on stopping at the store to pick up candy before arriving at the house; after all, this family had young children. The kids loved him for it. He was also generous enough to give to the family his red skull cap known as a “zucchetto.” I had the privilege of holding it the day I visited the mother of the family.

In any case, one of the teenage daughters of the family took a liking to the bishop. So she decided ride along with her parents when they had to take Sheen back to the airport. Mind you, this was at 4:30 am in morning. Before boarding, however, Bishop Sheen sprung a surprise on them. He had asked if he could have some company on his flight. He wanted to have the teenage daughter fly with him on the condition that he would fly her home from New York City that same day. Of course, he would pay for the flight. The parents naturally agreed and their teenage daughter couldn’t be happier. Eventually the bishop and the young girl arrived at one of the airports in New York City. They had some time to kill some time, so they decided to grab a bite to eat. But first they made a quick visit to the bathroom. When the daughter came out of the ladies room, she saw Bishop Sheen kneeling down on the floor, embracing two children who had just lost their mother through a premature death. Evidently, the social worker who was transporting them to the gate had informed the bishop what had just happen to their poor mother. He really did have compassion for the plight of children.

Bishop Sheen and the young girl then went into a restaurant at the airport. There was a poor man who looked hungry sitting next to them. So as to not embarrass the man in any way, the bishop ordered a very large meal. After receiving it, he then claimed to be “full” and not hungry anymore. He asked the impoverished gentleman next to him if he wanted his food. The hungry man was more than happy to accommodate. Sheen found a way that charity was to be done while preserving the man's dignity.

Sad to say, but it was time to go home to Wisconsin for the young girl. Before she boarded the plane, however, the good bishop put two things in her hands (one each hand), and told her not to open her hands until she got in the plane. She did just that. They said their good-byes and when the young girl sat in her seat only to open up her hands with a hundred dollar bill in each one. It just so happen that this girl was inspired to donate to a charity that helped priests who needed financial assistance. She wrote Bishop Sheen to inform of this and of course, he was quite pleased with her decision.

Not too long after their original visit with Bishop Sheen, the young teenage girl made her way back to New York City to visit him. She stayed in New York City for about a week. Her mother told me that Bishop Sheen was a gracious host. He really was good to her. In fact, the family had corresponded with him throughout the 1970’s. They even anticipated a visit from him in Green Bay around Christmas of 1979. But that day never came because Fulton J. Sheen, Servant of God, passed on to his reward just inside of the chapel in his apartment. And isn’t fitting that he should die where he loved to be most? In front the Blessed Eucharist!

These are just a few things you may not have known about Bishop Fulton Sheen.