The cause for Fulton Sheen’s canonization will probably move forward now that his remains are to be moved to the Diocese of Peoria, which is seeking to advance the cause. I myself am quite a fan of Venerable Fulton Sheen, so this is definitely something I can be grateful for this Thanksgiving. It’s also quite timely because I think there are two important lessons we can learn from this early televangelist right now. I’m talking about patriotism and how we should approach the Christmas season (hint: it has to do with Advent).
Archbishop Sheen was fantastically popular in his time. He will probably forever be the most loved American prelates in our history. At a time when there were only three television channels to choose from, Fulton Sheen hosted a show during prime time on one of those channels. Heck, a Hollywood family changed their stage name to match his. What is it that granted so much success to this man? Certainly there are a number of factors – improving American attitudes toward Catholics, Sheen’s charm, his great sense of humor, his flare for the dramatic – but I’d like to focus on a particularly timely characteristic, his patriotism. Fulton Sheen was loved by Americans because they knew he loved our country. His was a force to be reckoned with when it came to combating the errors of communism, so much so that the FBI thought he could help them fight against it.
But Archbishop Sheen’s patriotism was more than anti-communism. Indeed, it was far more about the love he had for what our country was meant to be. As he put it, the essence of American patriotism “is not revolution, but the recognition of the sacredness of human personality and the inherent inalienable rights which every man possesses independently of the State.” What was evident in Sheen’s love for the country was not a undying loyalty to whatever direction the culture happened to be moving, but a firm dedication to best of what America could be. Because of it’s foundation on unalienable rights, Sheen saw that the greatness which America sought was found not in the power of the state, but in the virtues of it’s members. In particular, he emphasized the virtue of faith in a divine creator because “the freedom of man [is] a divine derivative.” For Catholics, this meant being good Catholic:
“The reason [is] obvious. If human dignity and liberty come from God, then it follows that loss of faith in Him means loss of faith in those liberties which derive from Him. If we wish to have the light we must keep the sun; if we wish to keep our forests we must keep our trees; if we wish to keep our perfumes we must keep our flowers – and if we wish to keep our rights, then we must keep our God. It is just as vain to try to keep triangles without keeping three-sided figures, as to try to keep Liberty without the spirit which makes man independent of matter and therefore free.”
At a practical level, this meant that Sheen was dedicated to the God-given dignity of each individual man. As a result, his method of improving the country was not to argue policies, but to exhort individuals to live a life of virtue. His message resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics alike because it always communicated a sense of personal value and personal responsibility. That is the kind of patriotism that America needs now: a firm re-commitment to being virtuous citizens, an effort to show our fellow citizens and the worlds why freedom is so valuable – that freedom can be used not for selfish gain, but to become great men and women. Want to make America great again? Be virtuous and stand up to defend the unalienable rights of every man, woman, and child.
And what about Christmas, what does Sheen teach us in that regard? As with any element of the Christian faith, he roots it in the cross: “Never forget that there are only two philosophies to rule your life: the one of the cross, which starts with the fast and ends with the feast. The other of Satan, which starts with the feast and ends with the headache.” It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and many have already put up Christmas decorations while Christmas songs float through the radio. For contemporary America, the Christmas season seems to start at about 3pm on Thanksgiving Day and ends promptly at sundown Christmas Day. We shop, party, and decorate for the month of December and then, once Christmas day arrives, we all let out a sigh of relief that the hectic days of Christmas are over… only to be exasperated at the credit card bills looming ahead.
This is a very worldly way of approaching celebrations: jump right to the fun and pay for the trouble of it afterward. Venerable Sheen is not shy about condemning this idea. He calls it the “philosophy of Satan.” No, the Church, in her wisdom, realizes how we tend to jump to the fun stuff and miss the importance of the journey. It is absolutely a Catholic idea to throw a party and celebrate the goodness of God. It is also a Catholic idea to be generous and give gifts to others. But, it is also a Catholic idea to deliberately curb our tendency to excess and to selfishness.
And that is one of the reasons that we have the season of Advent. Advent is from the Latin word for “arrival” and it is meant to prepare us for the arrival of Christ. How? By watchfulness and discipline. Just as with Lent before Easter, we wear purple vestments and our readings take on a tone of anticipation and warning. As you approach the beginning of Advent, I urge you to seriously reflect on how you observe Christmas. Do you take your lead from a bunch of corporations who just want to increase their quarterly profit? Or will you humbly hear the preparatory tones of our Liturgical way of life? In the next few days, consider a few of these ideas to make your Advent (and your Christmas) more Catholic:
- Consider a fast or sacrifice similar to the way we give something up for Lent. I highly recommend abstaining from or strictly limiting your consumption of visual media: Television, Internet Videos, Video Games. I suggest this because visual stimulation tends to dominate our imagination long after we have stopped watching it. For Christians, the imagination can be a powerful tool for more deeply engaging with the mysteries of our faith. By abstaining from these media, we can purge our imagination and make it better able to focus on the valuable moments of Salvation History celebrated by Advent and Christmas.
- Find an advent devotion. There are dozens of websites and publications that offer a day-to-day series of reflections and prayers to help you get into the advent season. Find one you can work with and follow it faithfully.
- Re-evaluate your gift-giving. Ask others to forego giving you a gift and instead give that money to worthy charity. Seriously reflect on the gifts you are planning to give: why are you giving these gifts? Do the people receiving them need these gifts? Will they actually use them? Will your gift just be a token that ends up cluttering another person’s life? If it’s a worthy gift for a worthy purpose, then go ahead and do it. If not, I recommend redirecting that money to a charity and instead hand-writing cards to express your love to people.
- I am very impressed by idea and presentation of Advent Conspiracy. Check out their approach and learn from it. If you follow their program, be careful about who you donate to because their partner Living Water International uses some of the money they receive to spread an incomplete version of the Gospel.
- Avoid as many pre-Christmas Christmas parties as possible. Try to refrain from prematurely acting like it’s Christmas (because it isn’t yet). Obviously, some of us may have to attend a party or two because of professional obligations, but avoid it if you can. Also, don’t be snarky, but try using “Have a Blessed Advent” or something similar as a response to “Merry Christmas.”
- Plan for making the Christmas Season an entire season. Plan parties to take place during the Christmas season. Keep wishing people “Merry Christmas” until the season is over. Leave your decorations up until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Consider moving your family’s or friends’ gift-giving day to a day during the season. Epiphany is a traditional gift-giving day in many other Catholic cultures.
Yes, our culture will make some or all of these difficult, but it’s high time Christians started leading the culture rather than following it. It may feel like time in the desert or like a seemingly endless fast, but that is the wisdom of the Cross, whose shadow looms even over the joyous season of Christmas. It may start with a fast, but it ends with a feast.