Fulton Sheen, TOB and the New Evangelization
Fulton Sheen, TOB and the New Evangelization
[NOTE: This is the second of a two-part reflection. Click here for part one.]
The beatification of Fulton J. Sheen pending, the proposed feast day of December 9 would be a day which Catholic Americans will be asked to contemplate the wisdom of the Church that has united Fulton Sheen to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the history and mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the beginning of the season of Advent, which is about remembering the purpose of the Incarnation and preparing the world for the coming of Christ. So, what is it that the Holy Spirit wants us to learn from Fulton Sheen?
First, Fulton Sheen was a prophet. He understood with penetrating insight the signs of the times and where the world was going. Back in the 1940s he wrote:
“We are living in the days of the Apocalypse–the last days of our era…. The two great forces of the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of Antichrist are beginning to draw up the battle lines for the catastrophic contest (1948)”
. . . Our so-called liberal civilization, which is dying, is only a transitional phase between a civilization that once was Christian and one that is anti-Christian. It has no stability of its own, being based for the most part in successive negations of the Christian philosophy of life. It will end either in a return to the Christian tradition or in revulsion against it. This alone constitutes the crisis of democracy; it will either return to its roots or die (1943).
America’s real roots are not found in 1776, but in 1531, where the true roots of the Americas were Catholic and planted by Our Blessed Mother in her titles of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception.
What is the significance of the Immaculate Conception? As we see in the Mass readings for its feast, the Immaculate Conception of Mary highlights Mary as “the woman” who is at enmity with the serpent and the one who crushes the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Genesis 3:15 also points to the Immaculate Conception of Mary as preparing her for her unique role in remaking mankind into the image of God, which became disfigured and unattainable because of original sin. It would be from God taking on Mary’s human nature that He would reveal His image by the Word become flesh and by taking on Mary’s human nature, He will reveal what it means to be truly human, made in the image of God.
Translating that to our times…our modern civilization is blind, and that is due to divorcing God from morality, which has led to us calling evil good and good evil. As the earth cannot exist without the sun, so civilization cannot endure without God. And the last 200 years was a progressive revolution against God, the family and ultimately human sexuality. And we’ve reached the point that we now call our blindness “enlightenment.” Jesus warned us against the evil of such blindness:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matt 6:22-23)
In short, the world has a vision problem and the Immaculate Conception of Mary is about reorienting us on how to see with perfect clarity: being pure, immaculate (which means “without sin or stain”). Our culture cannot see because it is engrossed in sin and these are mostly sins of the flesh. We no longer see that we are made in the image of God, and so we see others only as means and not ends. The Immaculate Conception of Mary corrects our nearsightedness and helps us see our ultimate destiny with utmost clarity.
And this is what Mary’s mission is, to help us to see ourselves with the vision God with which God sees us. Once we see His image inscribed in our flesh, we will see others in the same light, and in that light we will rediscover that who we are is wrapped up in a mystery of love that is expressed by seeing others.
This was the mission of Fulton Sheen throughout his 60 years of priesthood: To put corrective lenses on modern culture to see God, mankind and creation with 20/20 vision and through that to humanity To help humanity find itself again.
We cannot see and yet we claim we do. And this blindness has led to the eclipse of our understanding. We are living in a time in which there is the greatest confusion of what it means to be human. It was bad enough when the struggle was not knowing who we are — insecure our identity, neurotic and anxious. Now the the struggle is not knowing what we are — gender has no relevance. It is accidental to who we are, so we can change it at whim because the lie is that our bodies have absolutely no connection to our souls.
This is why this Advent in particular is such an important season to reorient our thinking and contemplation of the question: WHY did the Word become Flesh? Why did God become man?
Fulton Sheen contemplated this every day because He knew translating the answer to those questions would be at the heart of the new evangelization. In other words, for Fulton Sheen the starting point for the new evangelization of today’s confused Godless culture was answering the question: What does it mean to be human?
In his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, Sheen wrote:
“[The third approach to evangelization that is to come] is what might be called the anthropological. I . . . mean it as the roots of the word imply — a study of man. The presentation of religion had been principally from God to man, but now it will be from man to God. It will not start with the order in the universe alluding to the existence of a Creator of the cosmos; it will start with the disorder inside of man himself. It will take all the findings of our psychological age and use them as a springboard for the presentation of Divine Truths. . . .”
“I often wish that I were younger so that I might use this third approach which I have mentioned, namely, starting with the unhappiness inside of the human heart. The audience is always there, the opportunities are ever present. There is need to take hold of tortured souls like Peter, agnostics like Thomas and mystics like John and lead them to tears, to their knees or to resting on His Sacred Heart.”
You can feel the genuine sadness in these words of Sheen. Reaching wounded and starving hearts and leading them to Christ was his mission. His whole life of evangelization was about helping a lost society discover happiness by embracing an authentic Christian philosophy of life. But, I believe Sheen is smiling from heaven for two reasons. First, as he was writing those words, the pope that he predicted would be known as “the great” had just taken the helm to lead the Church into the new evangelization of the third millennium. The pope was St. John Paul II (called “the Great” by many after his death). And the blueprint he used to lead the world back to Christ began with entrusting the Church and the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Upon that foundation, John Paul II launched his reconquest of humanity by dedicating the first five years of his pontificate to delivering a five-year catechesis on what it means to be human made in the image of God, a catechesis he called the Theology of the Body.
Fulton Sheen said, “God never does anything in history without the greatest finesse of detail.” So, celebrating Sheen’s feast day at the beginning of Advent at the same time as the Church contemplates the mystery of Mary as the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe. John Paul II called Our Lady of Guadalupe “Patroness of the Americas” and “Star of the New Evangelization.” Now that Star is shining her light upon Sheen to be our guide back to her Son and through his teaching and example, help us to see clearly the path to true freedom and happiness.
“If we would remake the world, we must begin by remaking the individual,” Sheen said. “Then the institutions will be good enough, for they will resemble the good men who made them.” Now is the time to discover what this prophet for our times has to teach us on how to do so.
Dr. Peter Howard, S.T.D, is president of the Fulton Sheen Institute (fultonsheen.institute). He hosts a podcast on Sheen, “Treasures In Clay,” and is the author of “The Woman: Mary as Mediatrix in the Teaching of Fulton J. Sheen.” To book Dr. Howard for a talk at your parish in 2020 to share the story and mission of Fulton Sheen, click here.