By Julie Asher
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — A grass-roots effort calling on Catholic churches around the world to celebrate a special Mass on the May 8 birthday of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen could see its goal of 1,000 Masses soon reached.
As of April 13, close to 900 churches had pledged to celebrate a Mass in memory of the prelate, who was an Emmy-winning televangelist and who spread the Gospel message far and wide as head of the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966.
Lo Anne Mayer, a New Jersey Catholic, is one of those who launched the Mass effort in January. She also knew and greatly admired Archbishop Sheen, who is a candidate for sainthood.
Mayer told Catholic News Service the idea for the Masses is to not only celebrate the archbishop’s life, ministry and legacy but also to "storm heaven" with prayers for his canonization.
She felt he was a saint the first time she met him. When he spent time with her and her husband and their six children, she observed his gentle manner with the children and how he spoke to them about Jesus and his sacrificial love — all of which convinced her even more he was a saint.
He was "so clear about God’s love for us," said Mayer, who first met him when she accompanied her mother to her parish church, where Archbishop Sheen was asked to speak on Ash Wednesday.
"My mother knew everyone in the church. She was the first one in and the last one out," recalled Mayer, now 76. "I waited and waited for my mother to stop talking to a hundred people. I was following her around with a coat and as I got to the altar Bishop Sheen came up and as I looked at him, (I saw) something very special."
"I would like your name and address and I want to send you something," he told her. He waited as she scrambled for a piece of paper and a pen to write down her address for him, Mayer recalled. A few days later, she received a package from him with a Bible and other books for her children. "(It was) like a Christmas box," she said, adding that he would call regularly and ask what the children were learning. He also baptized her youngest child.
Archbishop Sheen, who won the 1951 Emmy for outstanding television personality for his show "Life Is Worth Living," was born May 8, 1885, and grew up in Peoria, Illinois. He was ordained a priest for the Peoria Diocese Sept. 20, 1919.
He was an auxiliary bishop of New York. After his nearly 30 years as national director of the Propagation of the Faith, he was bishop of Rochester, New York, from 1966 to 1969 and given the personal title of archbishop when he retired. Archbishop Sheen died Dec. 9, 1979.
His cause for canonization was officially opened by the Diocese of Peoria. Archbishop Sheen’s heroic virtue and life of sanctity were recognized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, who granted him the title "Venerable."
If Archbishop Sheen is canonized, he would not only be the first U.S.-born male saint but also a saint who impacted many people who are still alive today, like Mayer and Larry Schumann.
Schumann and his wife, Bernadette, live in Williamsburg, Virginia, and are members of St. Bebe Catholic Church. He said he first became associated with the Sheen Foundation and other efforts supporting his canonization cause in 2003 and over the past 14 years has done what he can for the cause.
Archbishop Sheen married the Schumanns in 1964, and baptized their youngest daughter in 1975. His wife worked at the Propagation of the Faith’s headquarters in New York City for 11 years, during some of the years when Archbishop Sheen was its director.
"It is our prayer that with these Masses on May 8, 2017, throughout the world, the Holy Spirit will move his cause forward, and that his beatification and canonization will soon be realized," Schumann, 80, told CNS in an email.
Archbishop Sheen "was very important to use growing up. He was like another grandparent," said Rosemarie Costello, 54, of Edmond, Oklahoma, where she belongs to St. John the Baptist Church. He often visited her family. The archbishop introduced her father and mother met through the archbishop; he married the couple. Archbishop Sheen baptized their six children, gave them their first Communion and confirmed them.
"His message is timeless," Costello said. "I read something he wrote and hear something he said and can’t even believe it was (in) 1950. It’s applicable to the world today. His involvement in bringing Christ to people — it didn’t matter if you were Catholic or not — he was very ecumenically minded at a time when that was not happening (elsewhere)."
She added: "My mother felt so strongly he should be proclaimed a saint I remember being a little girl and she’d say, ‘You know the bishop is going to be a saint some day.’" But even as a child Rosemarie could tell "we were certainly in the presence of an extremely holy man. He was a big part of our family. … We loved him very much!"
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Follow Asher on Twitter: @jlasher.