BY CHRISTINE HOGAN
When I was a child, I was fascinated by my parents’ photograph albums. I could sit with them for hours, as they talked about people long gone, places they left long ago.
There were little, ageing prints of distant (to me) relos, their feet firmly planted on the running boards of first cars, grandparents dressed up for the Show or a wedding, ping pong teams filled with fresh faced juniors from Mum and Dad’s work, The Courier-Mail in Brisbane.
The pictures were a bit dog-eared, cherished, fading a little to a slightly yellowish tinge. The faces were pretty obscure, and the lighting invariably hit and miss.
But there was one photo which never failed to transfix me. It was a 10 x 8 glossy, and signed for Mum. It was lit for days, the contrasts strong and perfect, the subject crisp. If she had told me it was of a Hollywood star, I would not have been surprised. Dear me, this was a handsome man – hair a high gloss black, a faraway expression in the eye.
He was wearing a Roman collar, so he looked like a priest (although one much better looking than anyone in the sanctuary up at Little Flower), and he had two surnames instead of a Christian name and a surname. I handed that photo with care, whenever Mum opened the photo box, and whenever I asked him how she came by it, she would just tell me that he gave it to her.
It was not until years later that I came to understand the importance of Fulton Sheen in the 20th Century Church – and to appreciate the role he played in my mother’s life... and mine.
In 1948, she was secretary to The Courier’s managing director, and not quite 20. She was considering her options in life... she had met Dad and they were interested in each other, but she was in the process of discerning if she had a vocation.
So when Fulton Sheen came to Australia in that year, she thought she would ask him for some advice.
Imagine that! A girl of 19, asking the rock star church communicator of his time – a man in his early 50s – for an audience. She rang up Lennon’s, told them she was from The Courier, and asked to be put through to Fulton Sheen. And so she was. (These really were simpler times, weren’t they?)
She told him that she thought she might have a vocation, and wondered if he would be able to help her with that. To his great credit, Fulton Sheen (yet to mitred – that was in 1951) invited her to come after work for a cup of tea.
Mum toddled up Adelaide Street, turned right into George and the Lennon’s foyer at the appointed time, and was ushered in to meet him. Fulton Sheen received her with kindness, and grace, and listened carefully as she outlined her inchoate plans – to become a missionary nun. (The Mercies who had taught her at All Hallows might have been astonished to hear this sketch of Mary Kelly’s future!)
During their conversation, the man recognised as the first tele-evangelist spoke from the heart to the heart of a young woman. The priest accustomed to thousands in his audiences might have done some discerning himself an, by the end of tea, he was warmly urging her to embrace a life as a wife and a mother (which she did the next year).
It must have been Winter, and Mum must have looked a little under-wrapped to be going off into the chilly Brisbane night. As she left, he gave her five shillings, and told her to buy herself a pair of gloves.
She followed his career in the church after that, and was delighted when he got his TV show, cast down when he and Cardinal Spellman fell out, pleased when he was given a bishopric and then made an archbishop. Mum would have been over the moon to have known that the man who had tea with her, signed a photo for her and funded a pair of leather gloves, is now on the path to canonisation.
In June, Pope Benedict XVI officially recognised a decree from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints stating that Archbishop Sheen lived a life of ‘heroic virtues’. This is a step towards beatification, and now he is referred to as Venerable Fulton Sheen.
I still have that photograph. And I still look at it from time to time and remember a man I never knew, a priest who travelled the world and walked with presidents, who still had the time to spend with a girl and quietly hear her thoughts and put her on a life’s path which brought her, and our family many, many blessings for which we are so grateful.
Christine Hogan is the Publisher of faith-based communication for Church Resources.
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