Y WHOLE LIFE, I have wondered why Fulton J. Sheen said so little about the liturgical changes of the 1960s. “How could a man,” I asked myself, “who wrote and spoke about the Mass his entire life remain silent about radical alterations?” I recently mentioned Sheen’s famous 1940s Mass narration, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Mass was the center of Sheen’s life—and he spoke of it constantly—yet Sheen says nothing at all about liturgical change in his autobiography.
As I mature, I begin to understand: sometimes a leader will stay silent about scandalous things as a matter of prudence. He will instead try to correct abuses by a positive example and penances undertaken behind closed doors. (I did not understand this when I was younger.)
Inside a biography by Thomas C. Reeves we can find a few statements on liturgy, but we must tread carefully since his publication teems with mistakes and misunderstandings. For the record, here’s what Reeves wrote on page 334: 1
Archbishop Sheen, of course, was fully aware of the turmoil plaguing the Church in the late 1960s. Though at all times staunchly defending the Second Vatican Council, he was displeased by certain developments he and many others had not anticipated when they voted for the historic documents that modernized the Church. As early as April 1966, Sheen expressed unhappiness with English translations of the Gospels, the Mass and the Missal, thinking them designed to please the least literate of Catholics. In 1975, he expressed reservations about the liturgical experimentation going on as well as the lack of instruction available. “I say that the laity of this country are in an uproar against the want of religious teaching or catechetical training, both in the schools and in the pulpit.” Many new church buildings failed to win the archbishop’s approval.
He was highly critical of the abandonment of habits by religious. In a 1975 speech in Peoria, he began, “Most Reverend Bishop O’Rourke, Reverend Fathers, Recognizable Sisters, and friends.” In a letter to a mother superior, he quoted chapter and verse from Church documents showing that it was forbidden for religious to wear secular apparel. In 1976, he wrote to John Cardinal Carberry of St. Louis, “As the sense of the Sacred diminishes, Sisters in pants distribute communion, while priests sit idle in the sanctuary. This ‘option’ results from a decay of the reverence for the Lord’s Presence.”
Regarding Mass in the vernacular, on page 261, Reeves wrote:
Sheen knew that a Second Vatican Council had been considered since 1922, that Pius XII had endorsed the idea, and that plans had been drawn up before his death. And Fulton was not averse to all change; in mid-1956, he had expressed his hope that the Mass could one day be said in the language of the people.
But the original article—cited by Reeves as justification for his assertion—shows that Bishop Sheen said something quite different:
Sheen specifically spoke of missionary countries; which is the origin of the permission of using “Slavonic” as a liturgical language:
Saint Methodius was afterwards consecrated Archbishop of Moravia and Pannonia and returned thither to his missionary work. Later on he was again accused of using the heathen Slavonic language in the celebration of the Mass and in the sacraments. It was a popular idea then, that as there had been three languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, inscribed over our Lord on the cross, it would be sacrilegious to use any other language in the service of the Church. Saint Methodius appealed to the pope and in 879 he was again summoned to Rome, before John VIII, who after hearing the matter sanctioned the use of the Slavonic language in the Mass and the offices of the Church…
THROUGHOUT HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Sheen made it clear he could not sing, frequently repeating the quip that he “couldn’t carry a key on a ring.” He cites a seminary professor who claims he sang quite well, but says his memory must have been poor. The anecdote regarding Sheen’s failed attempt to sing an ALLELUIA supports the theory he could not read music. In any case, Reeves writes the following about Sheen’s installation Mass in Rochester:
Kearney had wanted a gala ceremony, and the new cathedral choir director and organist, William Ferris, wrote special music that included brass instruments. At the service, he played the organ and directed the boys’ and men’s choirs. (After the consecration, Sheen told Ferris that he wanted a classical repertoire at the cathedral, including Gregorian chant. “This was unusual,” Ferris said later, “for all sorts of freaky things were being done in churches at this time.” Sheen had “a tremendous knowledge of music and liturgy,” Ferris recalled, and he promoted the development of a seminary choir at St. Bernard’s.)
I remember Sheen speaking of music only a few times. Once, he mentioned Beethoven’s Leonora Overture. Another time, he stressed that our Lord “sang a hymn” after the Last Supper. I know he was friends with Fritz Kreisler and forced him (by begging) to compose the theme song for his television show, “Life Is Worth Living.” Perhaps Sheen seldom spoke of music for the same reason he almost never incorporated specific prayers from the liturgy into his talks: he was trying to appeal to a very wide audience.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The reference note given for the letter of 22 April 1966 is: “Copy, Fulton J. Sheen to [radically progressive bishop] Paul J. Hallinan, 22 April 1966, Sheen Correspondence, box 48, Sheen Archives.” If someone has a copy of that letter, I’d love to read it.