The Words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen
The world has always had prophets, but it was reserved for our day to be surfeited with them. Never before in history has there been so much thinking and so little coming to the knowledge of truth, so many schools and so little scholarship, so many wise men and so little wisdom, so much talking about religion and so little prayer. First of all, a word about the world as a teacher. There is no one point on which any of these teachers is agreed, there being as many opinions as there are heads. But there is great unanimity in the method of their teaching. All are agreed that a successful message must possess three qualities: it must be smart; it must be liberal; and it must be modern.
By smart, the world means the message must be sophisticated, so as to appeal to the intelligentsia and to frighten away the uninitiated. The modern prophet seeks to astound us with his outpouring of quaint scientific facts and to dazzle us with a deluge of high-sounding names in which sin is called a form of Oedipus Reflex, and religion is defined as a projection into the roaring loom of time, or a unified complex of psychical values; he hints at vast authorities in the background, dwells on prehistory rather than history; always tries to convince the man on the street, not how simple a truth is, but how complex.
Secondly, the twentieth-century prophets agree that the message must be liberal. By this is meant that it must reduce law to a few social virtues, substitute hygiene for morality, patriotism for piety, and sociology for religion. The ideal must never surpass an approximate justice approved by public opinion; there must be a minimum of restraint and inhibition, no mention of mortification, but endless repetition of catchwords such as “evolution,” “progress,” “relativity,” and “service.” In this way the message will attract the self-righteous, and at the same time not offend those who believe that ethics must be suited to unethical lives, and morals to unmoral ways of living.
Finally, the present-day prophet seeks not only to be smart but also to be modern. Above all things else he wants to convince his hearers that his doctrine is suited to the age; that we have outgrown other codes of morals and religion; that, after all, we do live in the twentieth century and not in the thirteenth; that the primary reason why the world should accept his teaching is not because it is true, but because it is up-to-date.
Now turn back the pages of history to a Great Prophet whose message has been more successful than that of any teacher who ever lived. We discover that His method was just the opposite. He upset all worldly standards of teaching with the same beautiful serenity with which He overthrew the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He did the very things any other prophet would have called foolish. He chose the very method the others labeled unsuccessful. His teaching possessed the three opposite characteristics of the world. He did not make His message smart, but simple; not liberal, but transforming; not modern, but eternal.
(excerpt from The Eternal Galilean)
Reflection on the Archbishop's Words by Father Andrew Apostoli
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen lived with the conviction that truth is eternal because God is truth, and God is eternal. He was convinced of the importance of knowing, of living and of proclaiming truth. It was the role of the prophets to speak for the truth of God’s message to His people. We see clearly in the Old Testament that the prophets God sent were constantly reminding the people of the obligations they had toward God because of the covenant they had entered with Him. They also spoke about the future, sometimes with a message of hope as it related to the birth of the coming of the Messiah and sometimes in warning as they foretold the possible chastisements of the Lord if the people were not faithful. But it could also be said that the Old Testament probably had more false prophets than true ones. For example, the great prophet Elijah stood alone on Mount Carmel as the true prophet of the Lord against four hundred and fifty false prophets of the pagan god, Baal. It was characteristic of these false prophets that their message was always one of good or welcome news and never raised the specter of chastisement. They deluded the people into a false security that often resulted in the people being punished severely for their infidelity to God. In our modern lingo, they were always “politically correct”!
The archbishop, with his usual insightful wisdom, analyzes the role of the worldly prophets of today with Christ Himself. It is like comparing the glitter of tinsel with the bright light of the noon-day sun. As we have seen in the above meditation, the archbishop points out three elements that characterize the prophets of today. The first of these elements is that the successful message of the world today must be “smart.” This means it must be sophisticated, intellectual, dazzling and above all, complex. The emphasis is not on the content of what is said, but on the impact it will make on its listeners. In contrast, our Lord was plain and simple in His approach. He did not attempt to impress His listeners with His overwhelming knowledge, nor with rhetorical tricks or pompous pretenses. He spoke the truth in a way that everyone could understand from the most enlightened of the scribes to the most simple of the shepherds. The Lord was concerned with the content of His message for it was to be “spirit and life” (cf. Jn 6:63) for the people. Do we lose the pure strength of Christ’s challenging message for an ambiguous intellectual sophistication that hinders the Word of God from becoming a transforming element in our lives?
The second element of the twentieth-century prophets was that their message must be liberal. They reduce the call to personal holiness to a simple living of the “social gospel”: Be nice to everybody! There is never a call to self-denial or self-restraint. It becomes a culturally comfortable way of life. Jesus, in contrast, offered a message that was not broad and free, but one that called the individual to a true transformation, from being children of Adam to becoming children of God. As the archbishop put it, “Our Lord did not alter a part of man, but the whole of man from top to bottom, an inner man which is the mode of power of all His works and deeds. He therefore makes no compromises, or concessions. He has a real contempt of a broadmindedness which is synonymous with indifference.” He tells us plainly what we can expect if we are good or bad. Are we open to Jesus' message as an expression of the truth of reality? Or do we seek those teachers who will suit our pleasure, as St. Paul put it?
The third element of the present-day prophet is that his message must be above all, modern. His gauge of the importance of his message is that it is timely, suited to the age, not a relic of the past. It has nothing to do with objective truth. As the archbishop puts it, “modern prophets…would rather be up-to-date than right, rather be wrong than behind the times.” The Lord did not teach simply for the here and now. He was not concerned about the popularity of what He said at any given time or place. For example, He lost the crowds when He spoke about His flesh and blood being true food and drink rather than deny this truth for the popularity it would have given Him. He upset the spirit of the modern prophets by dwelling not on timely topics, but on eternal truths. Do we seek to be “trendy” in the moral positions we take in life in order to fit in with the “in-crowd” and measure up to the latest popular “theological survey” such as being personally opposed to abortion but never imposing my values on anyone else? Or in contrast, am I willing to be with Jesus “a sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34) against the false values of our age?
The archbishop has certainly given us a lot to think about!