Monday, May 11th
Good morning, Good morning,
One of the great anthropological mysteries of life deals with the secular arena of wit and wisdom. Sitcoms on television often promote the first at the expense of the second. Religious programing early on Sunday morning often promotes the wisdom at the expense of wit. The one great iconic preacher balancing both in his own simple style, like the guy next door, was Archbishop Fulton Sheen. And he did it every Sunday night, on television.
The communication style of the great orator changed in our lifetime and few people ever noticed it. On television, for years, Sheen signed in with “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) at the top of the chalkboard. We all did the same with our school papers… unless one was trained by the Jesuits. They would sign “AMDG” (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, All for the Greater Glory of God.) It set the context of his presentation on television with a religious identity. The good Archbishop went further and added an “angel” to the broad cast. The one who would erase his chalk board when he moved off center camera.
“Aggelos” on the board, Greek for “angel.”
The weekly presentations were wonderful presentations that involved poetry, philosophy, history, and politics. Like the great Irish politician he had the ability suggest to someone they could go to Hell and they would look forward to the trip. Just kidding…
Despite the command of the Biblical stories and theological insights added to the television presentations and books authored by the great Sheen there was a moment of a personal change and I believe it had to do with the timing of a papal encyclical titled Humane Vitae. “Of Human Life”, by Pope Paul VI (July 25, 1968). The essence of the encyclical balanced the question of Faith with the question of Morals. Enter the new anthropological mystery, in the ecclesial arena of Faith and Morals. One could not be proclaimed at the expense of the other. Each commanded the respect of the other. In street jargon… You have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
After the time period of 1968 Bishop Sheen would meet each day with his staff of ten people to speak on the scriptures. He would cover a certain number of pages in the Bible, from beginning to end, sharing with them his insights while also listening to their insights. One of those invited to serve on the staff was a priest who later serve in the Diocese of Arlington. His name was Fr. Cornelius O’Brien. Rather than join the Sheen staff, he opted to continue his studies at Catholic University while also teaching at Trinity College, in DC.
The beauty of reading the scriptures each day is found in the life time of reflections and insights on the mystery of God’s life and love for our benefit. The scriptures are like a jewel with many facets with so many different perceptions. One of the great retreats offered by Sheen in the years that followed 1968 was offered in Dublin, Ireland in 1979. The retreat, directed to priests, was title, “Cor ad Cor Loquitur” (Heart speaks to heart.) and has a valuable application for the laity. I highly recommend it.
As in the life Archbishop Sheen, the personal experience/enhancement in the ecclesial arena of Faith and Morals happens all the time in this generation if we allow it. Some focus on both to influence their expectations in marriage and family life or how they fit into society. Some focus on Faith and not morals. As the adage goes… they can talk the talk but not walk the walk. Do whatever you want but believe more strongly. Others like the Morals, where they like the walk but not the talk. And some can opt out of Faith or Morals as easily as they opt out from having liver for dinner.
The issue of this letter is figuring out how to keep the mystery of Faith and Morals intact, or reclaiming it if it’s gone. There is nothing technical, or heady, but is all about the heart and soul. Twenty years ago one of my close friends, in another parish, was enjoying a very successful life as a producer for ABC News, The Discovery Channel, and Al Jazeera.
He was always at the top of his game… and he was generous in giving me books on the issues of the day. “He attended Georgetown University in Washington where he became associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as an adjunct fellow. He began working as a producer and national security consultant for ABC News and received a Benton Fellowship in broadcast journalism at the University of Chicago in 1987.”
“The awards he won during his career included several national Emmys for investigative reporting, several Dupont-Columbia and Peabody awards, the Global Health Council Excellence in Media Award and the Overseas Press Club Edward R. Murrow Award.”
With lovely wife, teaching at the Georgetown nursing school and four phenomenal children… he almost had it all. A good moral character with minimal faith. And there comes the rest of the rest of the story. A nun that no one expected would change his life forever.
Her name is Sr. Miriam Coughlin, of the Notre Dame Sisters, from Chardon, Ohio. An Irish name listed in with an order of tough old Germans. How tough? In her ban (classmates) there were twenty-eight sisters who made Final Vows… before I was born. On their fiftieth anniversary there were 11 honored at the altar of the Mother House in Chardon. Seventeen others were stationed together in the cemetery outside the chapel doors. On her sixtieth anniversary four sisters were on the altar and twenty two outside the doors. At the recent seventieth anniversary Sr. Miriam and one other prayed for the twenty six stationed together. No one in that entire ban ever left religious life. Leaving, like losing, was not an option for Sr. Miriam.
One day in class, with the third grade, Sr. Miriam spoke to the children about going to Mass on Sunday. Many missed because their parents were too busy or didn’t care. Sister assigned them the duty to say the “Hail Mary,” out loud, each night when they went to bed. They weren’t to shout or make a lot of noise. Just one Hail Mary out loud. All of the sudden there were four young voices saying the Hail Mary out loud. God could hear them and the parents could hear them. That crafty old nun hooked them all.
In time, not long after my friend came home to the sacraments, Sr. Miriam came down with cancer, stage four. It looked like she was going home permanently. The entire parish wedged into the parish hall for the farewell, with testimonials. The friend, with tears, stood up and said he was alive in the Faith because he could hear his four kids saying the Hail Mary out loud each night. Credit to Sr. Miriam. All the degrees, all the money, all the travel, and all the honors could never match what Sr. Miriam brought to his life.
The friend, and family, joined Sr. Miriam at her fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries. But not the seventieth… two years ago. Five years ago he succumbed to stage four cancer, dying at Georgetown Hospital. I was called for the confession, anointing, and apostolic pardon. When done we made the call to Sr. Miriam. For the second time everyone was put out of the room. The first for his going to confession. Now, the final conversation with the old nun. Can you imagine what the final prayer was? The four kids knew.
Fear and trepidation aren’t the things to enhance our Faith and Morals. They won’t make us better Catholics in our Faith nor strengthen our morals. It is devotion, with an Ave, that changes us. Even a single prayer at night from a kid, with the appeal for the parent indifferent to his Faith, will bring life and love to all the family. This letter isn’t dedicated to the old nun or friend who came alive in the Faith. It is dedicated to all who are still out there… disconnected from the Lord and His Church. Let us pray for one another.