By Emily Stimpson
“A miniature St. Peter’s Square.” That’s how one observer described the scene outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral when then-Father Fulton Sheen preached his annual Good Friday homily. On that day, thousands would fill the streets of New York, straining to hear the homily, which was broadcast via loudspeaker to all those unable to fit into the overflowing cathedral. The traffic on Fifth Avenue literally stopped while he spoke.
Those homilies give a glimpse into the power and beauty of Archbishop Sheen’s preaching, a power and beauty that Father Timothy Sherwood, author of “The Preaching of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: The Gospel Meets the Cold War” (Lexington Books, $60), believes was achieved as much by method as by grace.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor sat down to talk with Father Sherwood about his book and just what it was that made Archbishop Sheen such an unparalleled homilist.
Our Sunday Visitor: When most people today hear the name Fulton Sheen, they think about his television show, “Life is Worth Living.” Does what we’ve seen of him in reruns give us a good idea of what he was like as a homilist?
Father Timothy Sherwood: Not really. To start with, when Archbishop Sheen was on television, he was always under constraints. He couldn’t have an obvious agenda. He couldn’t directly preach Christ and Christ crucified to a television audience. Perhaps an even more important distinction, however, is that he was always very adamant that what he did on television wasn’t preaching; it was teaching. The difference, according to him, is that when you’re teaching, you presume your audience comes from many different perspectives. They don’t all have faith. When you’re preaching, however, you’re preaching to a congregation of believers. The presumption is that there is some common level of faith in your audience.
OSV: What was it that made Archbishop Sheen such an effective homilist?
Father Sherwood: At least in part, it was his understanding of what a homily should be. He always said there were three essential ingredients in a good homily: pulpit, audience and truth. That’s a variation of the old Greco-Roman formulation: message, speaker and audience. It goes back to Aristotle and Cicero. Archbishop Sheen was trained in that tradition. So were many of the earliest doctors of the Church. St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Basil — all were trained rhetoricians before becoming Christians. Now St. Jerome gave up rhetoric after he converted, and focused instead on translating Scripture; Augustine and Basil, however, used their knowledge of rhetoric as a maidservant to the Gospel. Augustine was, in fact, bothered by Jerome’s derision of rhetoric. He said priests who didn’t know how to preach were the reason people fell asleep in church, and in his writings he encouraged his priests to use the tools of rhetoric. Archbishop Sheen took that advice to heart, and was an Aristotelian through and through.
OSV: Could you explain a bit more about what Arch-bishop Sheen meant by “pulpit, audience and truth”?
Father Sherwood: Pulpit was his approach to preaching, his style of homiletics. That involved several things. First, it meant speaking from memory. He used to tell a story about an old Irish woman who, after hearing a bishop read his sermon, remarked, “Glory be to God, if he can’t remember it, how does he expect us to?” Archbishop Sheen believed you should never preach from a manuscript, but rather know your material inside and out so that you could preach extemporaneously. His style or approach was also very philosophical. He used a deductive approach. He began with a truth, then argued that truth.
He also was a master illustrator. Sheen was able to take very dense theological ideas and, through illustrations from ordinary life, turn them into something the average person, who didn’t have a background in theology, could make sense of. He could do that because he really understood what he was talking about. He used to say that if you don’t understand what you’re talking about, your audience won’t either.
OSV: And what about truth?
Father Sherwood: When it came to truth, Archbishop Sheen always fell back on a story about St. Paul. When St. Paul went to Athens, he wasn’t very successful. He won few converts. Sheen said that was because Paul wasn’t specific enough about Christ and the cross. Sheen took that as his own baseline. Christ crucified was the most foundational truth to be preached. Everything else developed from that. He was the one who coined the phrase, “You can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.” Which was a way of saying that you couldn’t preach Jesus without talking about the cross.
There’s a story that was about a lady who went into a jewelry store, looking for a cross to wear that illustrates that idea. When she told the clerk what she wanted, he asked her if she was interested in just the cross or if she wanted one that had the little man on it. The clerk had no idea that was Jesus on the cross, which meant he had no idea who Jesus really was.
According to Archbishop Sheen, the same thing was essentially true of the first Christians, who were unable to recognize Jesus for who he was until after his passion and death, and it’s still true for us: We can’t know Christ the redeemer unless we grasp what happened on the cross.
OSV: And audience? How did the people to whom Archbishop Sheen preached affect his homilies?
Father Sherwood: In terms of audience, he subscribed to a basic principle of leadership: In order to lead, you need to understand those you’re leading, or in his case, those to whom you’re speaking. Archbishop Sheen was very much a student of his day. He was fascinated by all the things happening around him, especially all that was used to argue against God, the Church and her teachings. He would study those things, use them to understand his audience, and also bring them into his preaching in order to give people a means of arguing against them.
OSV: What about character? How much did Archbishop Sheen’s own character contribute to the effectiveness of his preaching?
Father Sherwood: In terms of preaching, character is perhaps the most important aspect. If you want people to find you credible, the words that you say have to match the life that you live. A great example of this was when Mother Teresa spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. The audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Her talk was actually a very simple talk, but people listened intently because of her life. Before she ever said a word, her life spoke for her. Archbishop Sheen was that same way for a lot of people. The credibility of his life spoke before he said anything.
OSV: Prayer was an important ingredient in preparing those homilies as well, wasn’t it?
Father Sherwood: It was. Throughout his priesthood, Archbishop Sheen spent an hour every day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, regardless of where he was in the world. He always had paper and pen beside his chair, and according to him, some of his best insights in preaching came from those Holy Hours. Which makes sense. When you’re preaching about the Son of God, what better place is there to prepare than in front of him? How can you speak about someone if you don’t know that person? Prayer is the essence of getting to know Christ.
OSV: The sum total of that preaching didn’t just affect individual lives. As the subtitle of your book hints, it also affected the national under-standing of the Cold War. Could you explain that?
Father Sherwood: Archbishop Sheen gave a religious language to the Cold War. Up until that point, it had typically been spoken about in terms of politics. But he introduced a religious tone into the conversation. With him, it wasn’t just about good and bad. It was about the God-fearing people of the free world versus the godless world of the communists. He never attacked the people living in communist countries. Rather, he went after their leaders, those who wouldn’t let people worship or express their faith. And in doing that, he indirectly sparked a national revival of religion.
He helped make it so that, in the public conception, belonging to a church and having faith were important parts of living in the free world. He reinforced the idea that religion is important to democracy.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.