Those questions came to mind when I recently read that Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a prime-time TV star of the 1950s, may become a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. The New York Times reported that Cardinal John J. O'Connor has given permission for a friar at St. Felix Friary in Yonkers to begin a study of the life of Bishop Sheen as the first step in the long process of canonization.
I first heard of Bishop Sheen when I came home from Columbia College in the summer of 1954 as a proud intellectual atheist, and my parents insisted I watch this TV priest. Bishop Sheen was outdrawing the era's hottest TV star, the comic Milton Berle, and had even won over my Midwestern Protestant parents, a breed congenitally suspicious of "the papacy." He shook my smug atheism with a sermon on "The Hound of Heaven," the poem about the man who "fled him down the nights and down the days" but is caught by God in the end--as I feared I might be (a fate I would later welcome with open, broken heart).
|The idea of nominating individuals for sainthood appeals to me, and I think the rest of us ought to have a say in choosing our own saints.|
I have often thought fondly of Bishop Sheen, and he would certainly have my vote for sainthood--if I could vote, but I can't; I'm not even a Roman Catholic. But the idea of nominating individuals for sainthood appeals to me, and I think the rest of us ought to have a say in choosing our own saints.
This very idea has been carried out at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where a stunning mural-in-progress in the church rotunda portrays 74 men and women who have been chosen by a lay committee and clergy from a list of 350 names submitted by church members as candidates for sainthood--"popular saints" or "modern-day saints." "We celebrate those whose lives show God at work," explains a document from the church, in order to foster a broad idea of sainthood, rather than "the commonplace notion of rarified purity."
The saints depicted include people of all faiths, some of whom are as surprising as they are provocative: Ella Fitzgerald, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anne Frank, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, and Malcolm X take their place alongside Francis of Assisi, Patrick of Ireland, and Julian of Norwich, who have already garnered a place in the church's saintly pantheon.
One of St. Gregory's modern-day saints is a favorite author of mine, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and his presence in the lineup reminds me of someone I think Merton would nominate for sainthood--and for whom I'd second the motion. I'm thinking of Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author, who influenced so many students during his long and distinguished tenure as professor of English at Columbia University.
I left his office in Hamilton Hall not only feeling welcomed and acknowledged but somehow feeling safe in that alien place, in the intimidating city and sophisticated college. I had the reassuring sense that because such a man was here, no deep-down harm could come to me, no malevolence could invade the grace of his plain goodness. Though I never called on his help, I felt his presence during my whole time at Columbia as a kind of guardian angel.