As inhabitants of the 21st century, we tend to think that our style of anything—fashion, thought, language, music—is the best that things have ever been. We’ll listen to songs from the past with a grin of nostalgia. We’ll look at clothing from the past with a grimace of how-could-we. And while we know that the treasures of Catholic spirituality might be relevant to us today, we often get stuck precisely on their style.
No one talks the way people used to, and no one writes the way people used to. So that’s one barrier we have to overcome to access classic wisdom from the past.
Or… is it? Not when it comes to Sheen! Not only is his meaning and message astonishingly relevant to today’s world, his delivery is surprisingly so as well.
If you think that today’s rap music knows how to rhythmically string words together, then try this:
Because God is fire, we cannot escape him, whether we draw near for conversion or flee from aversion.
Don’t you love the rhythm of that sentence?
Or if you don’t think that words from the past are filled with imagery that entails immediate recognition, consider:
Many favors and blessings are hanging from heaven to relieve our temporal anxieties if we would only cut them down with the sword of our trust in God.
There’s an optic that isn’t going away anytime soon: the image of cutting down stress with a sword. And the fact that the sword is really our trust in God makes for theological as well as literary beauty!
In fact, images abound in Sheen’s writing:
(Divine love) is as invisible as the wind, as mysterious as the falling of a meteor. It energizes what is slow to act; it strengthens what is feeble; it warms what is cold in us and makes even the bearing of our cross a joy.
If love could reach no higher than earth, it would be like the pendulum of a clock alternating and ticking away between chase to capture, capture to chase, endlessly. But our hearts crave something more.
If language is meant to communicate, then Sheen’s writings and recordings fulfill its mandate. If language is meant to be lyrical, then Sheen’s writings and recordings warm our hearts and make us smile. But if language is meant to change lives, then his message has that power and that fortitude, and it doesn’t matter what century the words come from.
It is not true that acknowledging our sins as sins induces a guilt complex or morbidity. Because a child goes to school, does he or she develop an ignorance complex? Because the sick go to the doctor, do they have a sickness complex? The student concentrates, not upon his own ignorance, but upon the wisdom of the teacher; the sick concentrate not upon their illness, but upon the curative powers of the doctor; and the sinner, seeing his sins for what they are, concentrates not on his own guilt, but upon the redemptive powers of the Divine Physician.
Fulton J. Sheen was a man of his time… and a man of our time, too. It’s easy to imagine him delivering a homily in 2018, or even sitting across a kitchen table from us, just talking about God. His Emmy awards were just the beginning of his worldwide recognition. He has everything to say to the 21st century, and he does it with eloquence, meaning, and, ultimately, love.