Remembering a giant in the U.S. church's history - Catholic Courier
Matthew H. Clark Matthew H. Clark

Remembering a giant in the U.S. church’s history

I had originally planned to write this week’s “Along the Way” about my experience at the celebration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York of the 30th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. As it turned out, the threat of high winds in the Northeast led to the cancellation of my return flight.
It would have been an interesting experience I am sure to be present at the liturgy in New York. People from all over the nation were expected to attend. And, I know that I would have enjoyed hearing Archbishop Timothy Dolan preach on such a wonderful occasion.
While I missed being there, I have enjoyed the opportunity to remember this giant in the history of the church in the United States who for a brief time in the 1960s served as the sixth Bishop of Rochester.
My memories of him begin when I was a young boy who took great delight in the grace, humor and wisdom of his early television broadcasts. I recall that we kids were proud that we were Catholics and that “one of us” had achieved viewer ratings higher than Milton Berle’s. A few years later we seminarians at the North American College in Rome delighted at the occasional talks he would offer on his visits to the Eternal City.
My most vivid and personal memories of the archbishop are rooted in the second half of 1979. After I was installed as bishop in late June of that year, I wrote to my predecessor once removed and expressed a desire to pay him a courtesy call at his New York City apartment. He responded most graciously and we chose a September date for the meeting.
I remember being a bit nervous as I rang the bell to his apartment. But the archbishop’s warm and cordial greeting did much to put me at ease. Not withstanding his kindness, I couldn’t escape the sense, as I faced him across a coffee table laden with refreshments, that I was watching him on television. That sensation also passed as the archbishop inquired about Rochester friends and shared some fond memories of his time here.
We also spent some time talking about Pope John Paul II. The archbishop had great affection for the then new Holy Father and expressed a great desire to see him on the pope’s visit to New York scheduled for the following month. He also knew that Pope John Paul II had ordained me a bishop and was curious about my ordination. Given his background in mission work he had a particular interest in the fact that I was ordained with candidates from 11 countries and five continents.
The next and last time I saw the archbishop alive was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the visit of Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Sheen had grown quite weak by then but was still deeply eager to see the Holy Father. My understanding is that, hearing this, Pope John Paul II expressed a willingness to go to see the ailing archbishop at his apartment. Archbishop Sheen would not hear of that and insisted that he would come to be with the pope at a vesper service at St. Patrick’s. At the event the two embraced one another in the sanctuary of that great cathedral. Photographs of that tender moment were immediately and widely circulated. I remember thinking that the great applause that welled up in the cathedral was a fitting mark of respect and affection for two great men.
Two months later, December of 1979, I was back at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for ceremonies marking the death of Archbishop Sheen. There were eucharistic liturgies on three successive days marking the passage to eternal life of this great figure. One commemorated his years as national director of the Propagation of the Faith. The second remembered his tenure as Bishop of Rochester. The third was the Liturgy of Christian Burial. I remember what a privilege it was to preside and preach at that second liturgy and to do so in the presence of many who came from Rochester to participate in the celebration.
Thirty years later the process has begun by which the church will judge whether this extraordinary man lived a life of such heroic virtue as to be declared a saint. Whatever the final determination of that question, we all recognize that Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a churchman of towering influence and impact in our country and around the world.
I hope that on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death the Lord will continue to bring to flower the good seed of word and work that Fulton J. Sheen planted during his time among us.
Peace to all.

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