A welcome new collection of Archbishop Fulton Sheen's writings
YOUR LIFE IS WORTH LIVING: The Christian Philosophy of Life
by Fulton J. Sheen
(St Andrew's Press, 2001, hardback, 383pp, $45.95. Available from AD Books)
These days, vague, fuzzy, ambiguous, euphemistic expressions are the order of the day in the media and even in some Church circles. The words of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen therefore come as a breath of fresh air and common sense, with their insights, clarity, directness and timeliness.
Few writers and speakers have been able to give the truths of Christianity such drama, immediacy and appeal as Sheen. Despite the quarter century that has elapsed since his passing, his words remain as relevant and timely as ever.
In the light of this, the availability of a fresh set of Sheen's writings is a major discovery and a welcome development.
Considering Sheen's prodigious output of published works on the Catholic faith - not to mention his countless presentations on radio, TV and sound recordings - it was difficult to imagine there could be still more to come. We are therefore indebted to the editor of this collection, Jon Hallingstad, for his tireless work in bringing to life yet further Sheen gems of spiritual wisdom.
A West Point graduate, and raised as a Lutheran, Hallingstad was introduced to Sheen's writings in 1981 by a retired army officer and he proceeded to read 30 of Sheen's books within twelve months. In 1982, while searching for other books by Sheen, Hallingstad came upon a 25-album set of vinyl recordings dictated by Sheen in 1965, titled Life is Worth Living.
Although sharing the same title as the famed 1950s TV series, the content of the recordings was completely unrelated, being made eight years after the TV series went off the air and just at the conclusion of Vatican II.
The recordings were made in the privacy of Sheen's New York residence and without the use of notes. Each topic ran for about twenty-five minutes and drew from Scripture, the works of noted poets and authors and from Sheen's own life experiences. The collection was produced and distributed by Propagation of the Faith Recordings and sold over 50,000 copies at the time.
Hallingstad had initially read Sheen's books to increase his religious knowledge. However, after listening "intently" to the twenty-one hours of information on the recordings, he took the decision to convert to Catholicism.
Describing Sheen's words as offering "practical solutions to modern problems" and "an encyclopedia to navigate through life's challenges," he decided three years later, in 1986, to transcribe the recordings into book form. However, his attempts to have the work published proved unsuccessful and in 1988 the Army posted him to Europe. The project would remain in cold storage for the next eleven years.
Then, through a series of fortunate events, described in Hallingstad's fascinating Foreword, the project finally made it into book form.
Hallingstad has divided the transcribed material into five parts: (1) God and Man, (2) Christ and His Church, (3) Sin, (4) Sacraments, and (5) World, Soul and Things. He sets out the purpose of the book as threefold: "(1) To continue Sheen's work of spreading the Light in the world, (2) to renew a commitment to spiritual leadership in families, churches and communities, and (3) to create an historical record of a work which took Sheen months to produce."
Hallingstad adds: "It is a call to serve Christ more closely in the world and to respond with faith. Those who have heard this gentle call will understand. Finally, this work provides practical solutions to worldly problems regardless of religious affiliation."
Those familiar with Archbishop Sheen's writings and media output will need no further persuasion from me to purchase this excellent book. Others will find his unswerving faith in the full spectrum of Church teachings - providing in effect a companion to the Catechism - to be invigorating in this age of scepticism, spiritual flabbiness and moral equivocation.
There are many for whom Your Life is Worth Living would be essential reading. Those interested in the Catholic faith will find it lively, accessible and persuasive. Priests preparing homilies will discover in it a boundless source of ideas. And many younger Catholics, brought up on a diet of lightweight, accommodating catechetics, will enjoy a voyage of discovery.
Countless examples could be cited from this book to whet the spiritual appetite. Suffice to include just one - on the Eucharist.
"The priest is only the instrument of Christ Himself at the altar. Christ is the priest; Christ is the victim. When the priest pronounces the words of Consecration, he is only giving to our blessed Lord his voice and his hands. At the moment of Consecration the priest says over the bread, 'This is My body,' and over the chalice of wine, 'This is My blood.' Then there takes place the mystery of transubstantiation. Trans means across, substantiation refers to substance. This mystery means the whole substance of bread becomes the whole substance of the body of Christ. The whole substance of the wine becomes the whole substance of the blood of Christ."
What might otherwise seem dry, abstract doctrinal topics gain a fresh lease of life, thanks to Sheen's enthusiasm for the faith combined with his mastery of language and sense of drama.