Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 50:5-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9
Second Reading: Letter of St. James 2:14-18
Gospel: According to St. Mark 8:27-35
When I was a senior in college one of my roommates was a devotee of the writings of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. At the time I only knew Fulton Sheen as memory from the early days of childhood. Up until I was in about the third or fourth grade Sheen was the host of The Fulton Sheen Program, a 1960s version of Life Is Worth Living, the show Sheen hosted from 1951-1957. One of the great installments of Life Is Worth Living came in 1953 when Sheen focused on the regime and person of Josef Stalin. In that particular show Sheen stated that, “Stalin must one day meet his judgment.” Within a week Stalin was dead from a stroke. One wonders if Life Is Worth Living was aired in Moscow, and if Nikita Khrushchev nervously watched each week.
But all of this happened almost seven years before I was born, so I had no strong personal memories of Sheen’s television show except for his one prop – a blackboard that when full was erased by angels – at least that’s what Sheen told us. To the college-aged me, he belonged to a Church that might as well have existed in the eighteenth century. Even worse, he was popular, and that, to my barely post-adolescent mind, meant that he couldn’t be all that impressive. I read Aquinas and the works of my professors about Aquinas, and that was all I needed.
But, when my brilliant violin-playing pre-med roommate from Divine Child Parish High School in Detroit said that he was a huge fan of Fulton Sheen I had to take notice. In an attempt to convert me he told me a story of Sheen’s time as a graduate student at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, the premier Catholic university in Europe, and at that time the undisputed number one graduate program in Theology in the world.
Upon completion of his final oral exams, each student would be invited to a private dinner with the Theology faculty. The grade for the oral exams would be announced at the dinner in an interesting and unusual manner. The drink that the student was served would reveal his final grade: water meant that the student passed, beer meant that the student passed with honors, wine meant that the student passed with high honors, and champagne – real champagne from the Champagne region of France – meant that the student passed with highest honors. As Sheen tells it, the champagne was exquisite.
How could I not be impressed? Yet I stood by my prejudices, and said something to the effect that Sheen has forsaken his brilliance and has wasted his talents pandering to, of all things, an American television audience. He was nothing more than – gasp – a televangelist. A low blow, but I was on the ropes. This guy was a Summa Cum Laude Ph.D. in theology from Louvain. I was running out of wiggle room. Then I found out that he was the first American to win the Cardinal Mercier Award, given for the best philosophical work by a student. The title of this work, “God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas,” won me over and I began to read the works of Fulton J. Sheen.
I know that we should not judge a book by its cover, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, with its crucifix hovering above the world, the same painting that I look at every day on the back wall of my classroom, my favorite surrealist painting ever, adorned the cover of Sheen’s Life of Christ. I loved this book even before I read a word.
In the Life of Christ Sheen presents one of the most brilliant commentaries that I have ever read about the mission of Jesus and about what it is to be one of His followers. Sheen tells his readers that every person who ever came into this world did so because God had a plan for that person to live a certain type of life. And then he points out that Jesus was the only person ever who came into this world because God had a plan for Him to die a certain type of death.
Jesus is unique among all human beings because He is a Divine Person, but He is also unique because His death was His reason for taking on a human nature. The wood of the Cross is foreshadowed by His wooden crib in the manger.
How hard must it have been for the Apostles, Peter in particular, to see this and understand? How far away was the Cross from what they signed up for? Nothing could have prepared them for this disturbing revelation from the mouth of Christ Himself:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”
And what could possibly have prepared them for their future role in this drama?
“Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”
Since we have what the Apostles didn’t have – hindsight – maybe we can increase our chances of being prepared by reading and acting on the Gospel, and by reading anything written by that champagne-drinking televangelist who employed angels to erase his blackboard.