It is not likely that anyone will have heard of Heywood Broun, but he was a once very well known, well-connected newspaper columnist. His take on the world was fairly cynical, especially on the subject of organized religion, which he held in some contempt. But everyone will have heard of Fulton Sheen, the world’s first and most famous televangelist, whose TV ratings nearly equaled those of Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. “If I’m going to be eased off the top by anyone,” said Berle, “it’s better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”
In addition to dozens of books, retreats and, of course, countless TV shows, Sheen had a reputation as a convert maker, among whose conquests included high-profile people such as playwright Clare Booth Luce, industrialist Henry Ford II, and violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler. But perhaps the hardest nut to crack was Heywood Broun, in whom one would be hard pressed to find anything remotely religious. One day, Sheen simply called him up and said he wanted to meet with him. “About what?” demanded Broun, in his usual gruff manner. “Your soul,” Sheen replied.
A meeting was arranged and, strange to say, within minutes Broun had unburdened his entire life, revealing the deepest, darkest secret of all: “I do not want to die in my sins.” What lent a special urgency to the matter, of course, was the fact that he did not have long to live. So, cutting right to the chase and after a session or two, Sheen received him into the Catholic Church—the only “the” Church, as Lenny Bruce, another cynic, would put it years later. Within a few months Broun was dead, and it fell to Father Sheen to preach his Requiem, which took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in December of 1939. Exactly 40 years to the month, by the way, before Sheen would himself would face the same summons.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In thinking about Broun’s conversion, it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that Sheen himself felt a great urgency to reach out—to try and win this man’s soul for God. His mission, of course, came directly from Christ, to whom he had given his whole life and priestly service. “If Jesus Christ thirsted for souls,” he asked, “must not a Christian also thirst? If he came to cast fire on the earth, must not a Christian be enkindled?”
It would seem almost a no-brainer, right? Isn’t this pretty much the job description for every Christian? Certainly for priests and bishops it is. Who among them would not wish to leave this world having first dispatched great numbers to the heavenly kingdom? Indeed, to be eulogized in words very much like those spoken by Saint John Chrysostom on the feast of the martyrdom of Saint Ignatius of Antioch—that here was “a soul seething with the divine eros”? Is there another, more credible way to give witness to the grace of priestly ordination? What else is there to light fire to the imagination and work of a priest and bishop, if not to save souls? “Unless souls are saved,” said Sheen, “nothing is saved.”
They were certainly not chosen for administrative or managerial duties.
Or to exchange empty pleasantries over drinks with powerful politicians.
Is it too much to ask, therefore, that maybe one or two of them might begin with Joe Biden? Besides being their president, he happens also to be their brother in Christ, who stands in peril of losing his soul for his refusal—both obdurate and longstanding—to protect innocent, unborn human life. Does Joe Biden not have a phone number that they might use to call him up? Who knows, perhaps catch him on the fly next time he shows up for Mass?
“Mr. President? I need to talk to you. It’s about your soul.”
Is that going to happen anytime soon, do you think? The answer is no—which should tell you everything you need to know about the state of the Church in this country; about the level of prophetic leadership in the episcopate.
What would it cost for, say, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, D.C. to make that call? To schedule a meeting in which he, the chief Shepherd—they live in the same neighborhood after all—were to sit down with a member of his flock who has gone astray and try and bring him back to a right relationship with Almighty God? An hour of his day maybe, in order to (as they like to say in social justice circles) speak truth to power? And not just to save his soul, which is irreducibly precious, but to put an end to a scandal that grows graver by the day.
If he succeeds, it will, in addition to the conversion of Joe Biden, have hastened the day when little children are made safe in the womb. And if, God forbid, he should fail, what has the Cardinal-Archbishop got to lose? Not his soul, certainly, which God will surely bless for doing all that any good pastor should do; namely, discharging the most important job he has been given.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images]