10/18/12 | 612 views
Archbishop Sheen Brought Missions to Vatican II
When Pope Benedict XVI declared Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen “Venerable” in June, many younger Catholics most likely asked, “Who? What? Why?”
But older Catholics who remember the famous prelate who died in December 1979 could respond, “Archbishop Sheen was the greatest preacher and communicator the American Catholic Church ever had. Millions listened to him on radio and millions more later on television. By giving him the title ‘Venerable,’ the Holy Father was acknowledging that the former Bishop of Rochester was a man of heroic virtue and worthy to be considered for canonization.” Many also recall that Sheen was a prolific author of more than 60 popular books, who by his writing, preaching and personal ministry inspired untold numbers to embrace the Catholic faith.
Although the philosopher and theologian considered all his work directed to making the Gospel of Jesus better known, few, old or young, remember that Archbishop Sheen was one of the Church’s most important missioners. He said of himself, “Mission has been the deepest interest of my life.” With the Universal Church celebrating World Mission Sunday Oct. 21, it is worth recalling his missionary achievements.
Even less known is the important role he played as a participant in the four annual sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and his active role as a member of the conciliar Commission on the Missions. Few remember that Pope Benedict, who recently advanced Archbishop Sheen along the road to canonization, also worked with him as Father Joseph Ratzinger, theologian advisor on the same commission.
Better known, but perhaps overshadowed by his prime time weekly presence on national television (1951-1957), was his concurrent work as national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (SPF) (1950-1966). When Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York appointed then-55-year-old Msgr. Sheen, already well known for his popular NBC radio program, as national director of the U.S. Church’s official mission office, the cardinal also petitioned the Vatican to name him his auxiliary bishop. He was ordained a bishop in Rome in June 1951. Later that same year, the bishop added the television show to his responsibilities.
He took on both jobs with customary enthusiasm and creativity. The rich content and dramatic presentation of his one-man television program soon attracted 30 million viewers. In 1952, he humbly accepted an “Outstanding Television Personality” Emmy award, giving credit to “my writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” Likewise, as SPF director, Bishop Sheen worked tirelessly to promote mission awareness and raise funds for the poor churches in mission lands. He started a pocket-sized Mission magazine and wrote his own crisp text, illustrated with graphic photos from the mission world. He also devised a mission Rosary with each of the five decades a different color to represent the missions in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific Islands.
“The missions were the great passion of Archbishop Sheen’s life and priesthood,” said Father Andrew Small, O.M.I., current national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, which encompasses SPF and other mission organizations.
“So convinced was he of the need for the Church to have a presence around the world, he donated all the money from his television programs, books and lectures (reportedly $10 million) to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He saw that need as he traveled extensively to the missions in his 16 years as national director, even sleeping on the floor in some cases and always praying his holy hour before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I think that sense of connectivity he experienced during those years gave him the energy to speak so eloquently and so effectively to people and on behalf of the poor.”
Bishop Sheen brought that experience to Vatican II. During the Council’s first session his fellow bishops elected him to the commission responsible for the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity. According to Msgr. Vincent A. Yzerman’s definitive work, “American Participation in the Second Vatican Council,” Bishop Sheen not only attended every meeting of the commission but also made a number of trips to Rome outside of council sessions to work on the document.
Msgr. Yzerman also reports that Bishop Sheen made 16 interventions on various subjects under discussion by the 2,300 Council Fathers. Unfortunately, only one was spoken, while 15 were submitted in writing, thus depriving the bishops the power of his oratorical talent. He submitted interventions in favor of the permanent diaconate, the need for more dialogue within the Church and with the modern world, the charism women could bring in the fields of law, social communications and the quest for world peace.
Most of his interventions, however, focused on restoring mission as the Church’s top priority. “Nowhere in the New Testament,” he wrote, “is any mention made of a distinction between the Church and its missionary activity. The Church in its very essence is missionary.” He drew out the implication for bishops and priests. “The bishop is consecrated for the whole world, and only by reason of jurisdiction is committed to a small part of the world…Priests are ordained for the mission of the Church…The distinction between ‘missionary’ and ‘non-missionary’ priest is merely geographical. Every priest and every bishop is a missionary.”
In a separate intervention, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore drew out the implication for the laity by stressing that human development is part of the evangelization process and, therefore, the mission world needs “trained lay helpers in the various fields of sociology, economics, technology and the like.”
Bishop Sheen and his colleagues on the commission must have been pleased by the result of their work. In the last session, the bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of the final decree, which declares, “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature. For it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she takes her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father.” It is God’s mission, and mission has a Church, not vice versa. No longer is mission one of the important works of the Church. Mission is the essential work of the Church in which all of its members are called to be involved.”
No doubt Pope John Paul II had those invaluable efforts for mission in mind when
in October 1979 in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral he embraced the retired archbishop (a title bestowed on Bishop Sheen when he retired from Rochester in 1966).
“You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ,” the Pope told him. “You are a loyal son of the Church.” And, perhaps some day, one of its recognized saints.
Frank Maurovich, retired editor of Maryknoll magazine, now writes for The Anthonian, a publication of the Franciscan friars of the Manhattan-based Holy Name Province.
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