As we move into the third millennium, the world needs the gospel as never before; but how are we to convey it effectively? Examples like Fulton Sheen show us the way, says Dwight Longenecker
Jam happy to admit that one of the less attractive elements of American religious culture is the televangelist. If you've been to America on holiday, turned on the television and done some channel-hopping it is almost impossible to avoid them. The hot-Protestant preachers usually have big mouths, big budgets, big Bibles, and wives with big hair.
American Catholics are not to be outdone. In the very heart of America's Bible Belt they offer the indomitable Mother Angelica — a Captain Pugwash lookalike with a big smile, big wimple, big ambitions and a big budget. When 1 last visited EWTN one of the workers there told me in a twangy Alabama accent. "Y"know, when Mother first came down here she and the sisters had death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Meant Mother had to sleep with a shotgun under her bed."
Mother Angelica is certainly an exemplar of the Church Militant. You may be worried about her controversial style, but everyone has to admire her tenacity, hard work, vision and amazing success. But Mother Angelica is not the first American Catholic to be involved in broadcasting. The pioneer of American religious broadcasting was not a Protestant hotgospeller, but a devout Catholic archbishop.
This month sees the ninety-eighth birth day of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He was horn in the midwestem state of Illinois in 1895 and was ordained in 1919. By 1939 Fulton Sheen had already become a famous preacher and had founded The Catholic Hour radio broadcast on NBC. The programme ran for twenty two years. In 1940 he preached on the first televised religious service and for 16 years from 1950 he served as the National Director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. From 1951 to 1957 he hosted the Emmy awardwinning TV show, Life is Worth Living.
'In addition to his broadcasting work he wrote over 60 books and dozens of articles. Two of his books became national best sellers. He served on the Vatican II Commission on Missions and was appointed a bishop by Pope Paul VI in1966. Fulton Sheen was an amazingly gifted communicator. At the very beginning of the media age he realised that the faith needs to be conveyed through every means of the modern mass media. He used books, articles, leaflets, radio and television shows to get the message across in a winning way. Fulton Sheen was not a dumb American priest from hicksville. He was highly intelligent and very educated. He held a PhD from the University of Louvain in Belgium. He attended the Sorbonne and was the first American to receive the Cardinal Mercier Prize for international Philosophy. He was also professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America for nearly 25 years.
Fulton Sheen was able to communicate the faith successfully because he not only talked, he listened. He knew how ordinary people spoke. He knew what their worries and fears were. He used their language to talk about the faith. He used their lives to show God's love at work. He didn't expect people to come up to his educational or cultural level. He went down to theirs, and he did so in genuine humility, humour and good will. He was not condescend ing.
The secret of Fulton Sheen's success as an apologist and evangelist is similar to that of another great Christian communicator, CS Lewis. Lewis and Sheen are almost exact contemporaries. Both were highly educated, yet gifted in speaking to ordinary people. Lewis became &mous through his radio talks during World War II, Screwtape Letters and Chronicles of Narnia. All his work was filled with his passion to communicate the gospel to a needy world. Fulton Sheen was the same. From the other side of the Atlantic he issued a flood of articles, radio programmes, TV shows and books to help millions understand their faith.
Fulton Sheen knew that everybody loves a story and he loved to tell stories about how people, relationships, families and communities were transformed by the power of Christ's love. He believed that the Catholic faith was not just a set of doctrines to be believed or a set of traditions to be kept. Instead, the Catholic faith was vital for a happy, successful and productive life.
Now, as we are turning the corner into the 21st century and the third millennium of the Christian age, the world needs the Christian gospel as never before. Cynicism, doubt and despair seem about to overwhelm us. People are lost in the darkness of unbelief, depression, fear and distrust. Pope John Paul II calls each one of us to be involved in the New Evangelisation.
What does this
mean? It means each one, of us not just priests, monks and nuns — must give witness to our faith. If we have communication gifts as speakers or writers we must work hard to use those gifts in the media.
This is not only the task of media people. Everyone needs to speak boldly about what Jesus Christ means to them. Examples like Fulton Sheen show us the way to spread the gospel effectively.
There are three principles from his life from which all of us can learn: First, really believe that God is alive, that he cares and that he answers prayer. Second, speak naturally about what God has done for you. People want to believe and they want to hear how faith works so they can see the way. Third, stay in touch with God so it his message you are spreading and not just your own.
Those who have been influenced by Archbishop Fulton Sheen are working for his beatification and eventual canonisation. Martin Shaw is the director of the Fulton Sheen Foundation here in Britain. Martin is a good example of someone who is simply getting on with the job. He told me quite simply how Fulton Sheen's writings had helped kick-start his spiritual life and that in turn has encouraged me. You can learn more about the cause and about Fulton Sheen by writing to Martin at 43 Westminster Palace Gardens, Artillery Row, London, SW1P 1PR, In the meantime, take an example from Fulton Sheen. Get involved in the New Evangelisation. Ask God for courage to talk about your faith. Them is one final thing: maybe you have no faith to talk about. Maybe God has never touched your life in a real way. It is never too late. God wants to be a real and powerful presence in all our lives. There is only one thing you have to do. Ask.