Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. 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 an MS 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.
Little Know Fact: Archbishop Fulton Sheen gave sermons at Christ Cathedral in Orange, California, decades before it became Christ Cathedral. Back in 1972 Fulton Sheen spoke to an overflow house at what was then Crystal Cathedral. Would he have thought that exactly 40 years later in 2012 this magnificent church would become the cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Orange?
“I consider Fulton Sheen to be the brightest, the most brilliant, and the most beautiful Christian in mind and heart that I have known in the 20th Century,” exclaimed Dr. Robert Schuller, who built Crystal Cathedral. “No one inspired me more than Fulton Sheen to use television to reach the unbelieving world for Christ.”
Schuller’s televised “Hour of Power” broadcasts became highly popular and drew people to the Crystal Cathedral. The local Orange County Register carried a story in 2013 that stated: “The minister best known for his focus on bringing the unchurched into church with messages of hope had been inspired by his friend, the Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who had a popular TV program in the 1950s. Schuller invited Sheen to speak at the Crystal Cathedral.”
Sheen was a big inspiration for Schuller who obviously wanted to share that inspiration with those who came to the cathedral.
Unlike the traditional pews for Christ Cathedral, the former Crystal Cathedral had theatre-style seats accommodating nearly 3,000 people. Venerable Fulton Sheen not only filled them all, but preached to an overflow crowd that stood outside. From the raised podium which had a balcony effect, he could look directly at those inside and as well as turn to all those standing outside who wanted to hear his words of spiritual wisdom. Which were, by the way, and not a surprise at all, fully orthodox and Catholic as ever.
A Hint of Proverbial Sheen
He was 100% Sheen as he preached strongly about Christ, the Cross, our relation to both, and more. For instance:
“I’m concerned about bringing to you the very essence of the life of Our Lord,” Sheen told the super-attentive listeners. “I want to show you how he took upon himself, or transferred to himself, three different areas of our lives. There was physical transference, there was mental transference, and there was moral transference. He took upon himself all our burdens and responsibilities — physical, mental, moral.”
We brought a “number of ills upon ourselves and he came and took the effects of that freedom.”
After more insights and word pictures, his description of the Crucifixion intensified like the dramatic scene from a classic play. “The sun refused to shed its light on the crime of deicide. Nature is not always sympathetic to our moods, but it was sympathetic to his… In the darkness of that day he took upon him all the anxieties and despair…That’s why the despairing need never despair and the hopeless never be without hope…At that moment he redeemed all the skepticism of the universe.”
“We’re all sinners...We project our guilt on other people, the Church…Believe me — the only pollution that is in this world,” he said dramatically, pointing his finger, “is not in the atmosphere. There’s a moral pollution that is far worse.”
Yet “any sin that we’ve ever committed, of mind or heart or body, he took upon himself and paid the debt as if it were his own...This was the greatest of all of his acts of transference…When he rose from the dead…he’s conquered all this evil.”
During this series of three sermons, Archbishop Sheen held the audience captive, as he did with anyone who ever heard him.
Describing why Jesus came to earth, he said, “Our Lord would not remain in heavenly headquarters when there was suffering and pain and hate and disease in this world.” Describing the dramatic story of a Jewish girl who would not hide her identity because she wanted to be identified with her own people, he continued, that Jesus “willed to be identified also with his own creatures. And secondly when he took upon himself the form of a slave, he took upon himself the punishment we deserve…As if he himself were guilty. This is why we’re forgiven.”
In a gentle yet firm way, he spoke about rebellion or acceptance. Of our cross. And helped people realize that “the good Lord knows all things. He’s given me this cross. It comes from his loving hands. And I’m going to take it…We may eventually see it was a work of love…Love does not destroy pain, but love makes it bearable.”
(Listen to the entire televised broadcast.)
Sheen, Priestly Act After Talk
After he spoke at Crystal Cathedral, an incident happened that made the rounds of several places. One of them recounts how as Schuller was walking Sheen to the car past lines devotees there to see him and watching to reach out to him, one person was able to hand him a note. Sheen put it in his pocket.
Once both got inside the auto, Sheen pulled out the note and read it. He asked Schuller, “Do you know where this trailer park is?” Schuller knew. Before they headed to eat as planned, they first drove to the trailer park. Archbishop Sheen went up to the trailer mentioned in the note, knocked, and an “elderly woman” who opened the door immediately had “a shocked expression.” He entered, stayed with her for several minutes, then came back to the car. Inside the auto, he told Schuller, “Now she’s ready for living — in this life and the next.”
On a side note, and maybe tied together by the Holy Spirit, the elderly, retired Schuller helped the Catholic Church bring more people to Jesus when the Crystal Cathedral had to be sold. Although a university bidding for it came up with a larger dollar figure than did the Diocese of Orange, 85-year-old Schuller put in writing that he couldn’t bear that the cathedral might be used for non-religious purposes. But the Catholic Church would use it for that.
Solid Tribute to Sheen
Many years before this decision, Schuller honored Archbishop Sheen who he so earnestly admired and respected — and in doing so paid indirect tribute to the Church. He memorialized Sheen, his visit and preaching with a large bronze statue of the celebrated churchman that stood on the grounds of Crystal Cathedral. It’s pictured above thanks to the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Spiritual Centre.
Is it still on the grounds now that the cathedral is the Christ Cathedral?
“Yes, we do have it,” says Kymmberly Binnquist, who is senior property manager on the cathedral campus for the Diocese of Orange. She describes it as a life-sized statue, and counting the base, it stands between 8 to 9 feet tall.
Right now the statue is in storage. But “the intention is to put it in the museum-library at the time they will be opening it up,” she adds.
The statue will one day shine again in public to continue honoring Archbishop Fulton Sheen on these grounds in a wordless way that recalls his visit here, his great preaching that reached tens of millions throughout the years, and points to ecumenism’s goal and what Schuller himself named the Catholic Church as “the mother church.”