Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“First of all, we are at the end of Christendom,” Bishop Fulton Sheen solemnly said during a television show in 1974. “Now not Christianity, not the Church. Remember what I am saying.”
Then he defined what he meant. “Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is ending — we’ve seen it die. Look at the symptoms: the breakup of the family, divorce, abortion, immorality, general dishonesty.”
That was 1974. Today we know it’s even worse with the definition of marriage and gender drawn into the picture. And the crisis within the Church.
He reminded that of 22 civilizations that have decayed since the beginning of the world, 19 rotted and perished from within.
“We live in it from day to day, and we do not see the decline.” Remember, that was in 1974. “We take it for granted—we get used to things, and almost accept them as the rule.” Despite the decline blaring today, isn’t that a rule? How many Catholics accept the counter message to Humanae Vitae?
Sheen pointed out “the press that we read, the television that we see, is in no instance inspired by Christian principles. As a matter of fact, there is, on the part of many of us, the tendency to go down to meet the world — not to lift the world up. We are afraid of being unpopular — so we go with the mob.”
The good bishop noted we were living in the fourth 500-year period of Church history, explaining “the Church is not a continuing thing — it dies and rises again. It proceeds on the principle of Christ himself as priest and victim.
“And there comes the defeat, the seeming decay, we are put in the grave, and then we rise again. We have had four deaths in our Christian history.”
First Three Falls and Rises
The first time the Church was in dire straits was in the fall of Rome, the first 500-year period. It had a rebirth when great saint missionaries like Augustine in England and Patrick in Ireland spread the faith.
Then came a second “decay” around the year 1,000 with the Moslem invasions and the split of the Church with a schism in Constantinople.
“It seemed to be the end of everything. And then we came to life again,” Sheen said.
In the third 500-year period he said the Church became “rotten” as nuns and priests were defecting. Then came the reformers who “almost always reform the wrong things. And they began reforming the faith, and there was nothing wrong with faith — it was the morals that needed to be reformed. It’s not renewal — it’s really a moral reformation that is needed today, too.” Remember, that was 44 years ago.
All the more so in our day. On just one point, how many listened to, and took to heart, Humanae Vitae? Even theologians defected from it.
After that period the Church came to life again, Sheen said.
“And now we’re at the fourth period, and we’re rotting — we’re spoiled — no great zeal, no great learning, no great fire.” Yet there’s hope because “anyone who knows history is not particularly disturbed.”
“But the enemy in each of the 500-year periods has been separate and distinct,” he continued. “We had, and here I am speaking generally of enemies within the Church, in the first 500 years, false doctrine centering around the person of Christ…the Christological heresies. So the Church was just split open, and that was one of the reasons that made it possible for the Moslems to develop.”
The next period saw attacks on the head of the Church, leading to the Eastern Church breaking away.
By the 16th century the attack was on “the body of Christ, the mystical body, the Church.” It was Reformation time.
Today’s 4th Enemy
“Our enemy today is the world — the spirit of the world,” Sheen made clear.
“Today we have to conform to the world or we’re branded” he said. Must be politically correct. “Our Lord said, I have taken you out of the world. We say, ‘No we have to win the world, and to win it you have to be one with it.’ Our Lord says, I pray not for the world. He was praying for the spirit of the world. And this is the easiest kind of way to fall off the log — worldliness. It’s so simple, and it can be justified for a thousand reasons; namely, the Vatican Council said we have to go into the world — indeed, but not to be world, which is quite a different matter. So this is our attack today.”
Sheen saw this as “one of the basic causes of our degeneration, of our death. We’re dying. What about it? What’s the answer?”
“The answer is: these are great and wonderful days in which to be alive. I thank God… that I can live in these days, because these are days of testing.” Since 1974 the testing pressure has increased.
Sheen explained it was easy to be Christian in the three decades before his talk. “The atmosphere was Christian; morals were Christian; there was no great problem in adapting ourselves to a Christian society. But now, when everything is turned around, these are days when the masks have got to come off, and we reveal ourselves just as we really are.”
“Today the current is against us. And today the mood of the world is, ‘Go with the world, go with the spirit.’ Listen, dead bodies float downstream. Only live bodies resist the current. And so the good Lord is testing us.”
“And he is testing Western Christians with worldliness, and how many of us are falling?” Would Bishop Sheen be surprised on how far the decadence and corruption have piled up?
He gives the example of the Israelites being tested by God in the desert. “That is what he is doing to us. We are showing what we really are now,” Sheen said. “St. John says in his Epistle: ‘They did not love us really from the beginning. That is why they left us.’ And so the souls that are falling away have just failed to meet the test. It is very much like the test that the Jews had.”
The farsighted bishop highlighted how the majority of Israelites scouting the Promised Land told the people they couldn’t enter because the dwellers there were too strong. But “the majority is not always right!” Only Caleb and Joshua, “the minority report,” disagreed. They were right.
Sheen warned “what we are going to have in the Church is a minority report: a minority report of sisters, a minority report of priests, a minority report of laity — not the minority that is aggressive and troublemaking, but the minority that like Caleb and Joshua, trusts in God. So we are tested just as the Jews were tested.”
He went on, “not far after our time, and perhaps in the time of some, then will come the battles and the testing. Our Lord said, Satan would sift you as wheat. And we are being sifted as wheat. So we can all thank God that we live in these days. Really, it’s beautiful. Now we can say, ‘aye’ or ‘nay,’ and we can bear up under assault, criticism and ridicule, because this is the lot of the Christian in the days of the spirit of the world.”
Surprising, Unexpected Advice
The saintly bishop made clear the situation was really not “gloomy.”
Why? Because “it is a picture of the Church in the midst of increasing opposition from the world. And, therefore, live your lives in the full consciousness of this hour of testing, and rally close to the heart of Christ.” Be the “minority.”
He really had ears perked up with his next revelation and recommendation.
“And if there is anything that has to be restored in our day, I would say it would be violence. Violence! The kingdom of heaven is won by violence. And only the violent shall conquer it.”
Shouldn’t it be about peace? Let’s hear the great Bishop Sheen explain. And Biblically too.
He observed how when the Church drops things, the world picks them up but twists them in the wrong way. For example, mysticism drops, and the young turn to pharmaceuticals and drugs.
“And we drop violence, discipline, commitment to the Cross, and the world picks it up…That’s why there’s no stopping the violence of this country. We just have to…hire more police guards, build more hospitals for the addicts. Why? Because there’s no moral reason on the inside why they should stop.”
Isn’t he right on today’s beam? What’s the usual first response? More government spending and more laws will fix the problem. Uh huh.
Sheen explained, “Our Blessed Lord said I have come to bring the sword. Not peace! We are always talking about peace, peace, peace! Yes, because that war (World War II, Korean War, etc.) happened — but we aren’t making war in ourselves — and there’s not going to be any peace in the world until we make war. Our Lord said, I came not to bring peace, but the sword! He never used the word ‘peace’ until after Easter.”
“The Lord brought a sword. It’s not the sword that’s thrust outward against the enemy. It’s a sword that’s thrust against ourselves, cutting out the seven pallbearers of the soul: pride and covetousness and lust and anger, envy, gluttony and sloth. And we’ve given up the sword — someone else has taken it up, and we have to restore it! Then we’ll get peace! And peace is never corporate — it’s never social — until it’s first individual.
Social peace, world peace, is the extension of individual peace in our hearts. When we are right with God, then we will be right with our fellow man. When are not right with God, then we will be wrong with everyone else.”
He told everyone to take seriously spending an hour before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament every day “not only for our own souls, but for the world, and to strengthen our minority.” It’s “violence” to ourselves, easily enough understood.
Archbishop Sheen emphasized, “The Lord is keeping reserves. He is training us. We’ll make the entry. We’ll prepare for a new Church. And he is with us — we just simply can’t add rules — only we’ve already won as a matter of fact, only the news has not yet leaked out — and so it’s violence that has to be restored.”