THE WORLD'S FIRST LOVE
by Fulton J. Sheen
(1952, reprinted by Ignatius Press, 1996, $25.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Of all the books written about Our Lady, Fulton Sheen's The World's First Love is one of the most beautiful ever written. So popular was it when first released in 1952, it was soon republished as a Doubleday Image Book paperback and Ignatius Press has since added it to its catalogue.
Its author, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, one of the greatest apologists of the English-speaking Catholic world, a pioneer and leader in Catholic broadcasting, first on radio and later TV, wrote this work at the height of his career.
The World's First Love begins with the proposition that all of us carry within an image of the one that we love and that Mary is God's blueprint of a human being because she, unlike us, was not tainted by sin.
The work is structured largely chronologically; thus, Sheen moves from the fall in the Garden of Eden, to the annunciation and visitation and ends with an analysis of Mary's role as intercessor in a world living with the then threat of a nuclear holocaust.
Sheen brings out his extensive knowledge of theology, Scripture and philosophy throughout his reflection, in such a way as to make complex ideas that theologians and thinkers have struggled with for centuries accessible to the average reader.
While some of Sheen's writing reflects the concerns and assumptions of the 1950s, the vast bulk of the book's contents remains relevant for contemporary readers.
Indeed, it could be argued that many of his reflections have more relevance for today than the 1950s. For example, in his discussion of Mary as the model of authentic freedom, Sheen distinguishes between false freedom, that is the ability to do whatever one wants to do without any responsibility, and authentic freedom, that is the ability to make the responsible choice that enables us to grow as persons in our relationship with God, the annunciation being the archetypical example of authentic freedom.
The World's First Love also looks at apologetics type questions, most notably the question as to when belief in the Virgin Birth emerged. Sheen demonstrates, contrary to liberal theological positions that argue that belief in the Virgin Birth emerged only centuries later, that the evangelists firmly believed in this doctrine.
This work's chief strength is that it contains something for everyone on Our Lady: apologetics on the Virgin Birth, analysis of philosophical and theological concepts, devotional chapters dealing with the rosary and the seven sorrows, and discussions of apparitions, particularly Fatima.
This work is written not only for Catholics to deepen their faith, but for non-Catholics wanting to gain more of an insight into what the Catholic Church actually believes and teaches about Mary and her role.