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In exploring the recent history of the Catholic Church in the U.S., I am struck by how often dissent rises from the grassroots. One such uprising led directly to Archbishop Sheen’s invitation to speak over five days to Washington-area priests at Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, MD, on the shores of the Potomac. 

Sheen in his lifetime had conducted dozens of retreats for priests and laypeople. In 1974, as he prepared for the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington, he considered the request from Archbishop Baum. 

The archdiocese, and the church at large, was still reeling from the seventh encyclical of Pope Paul VI, titled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). In July 1968, the pope had issued the document, forbidding all forms of contraception. In June 1968, I had completed my ninth and final year of Catholic education, at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, DC, as the fires of the riots following King’s assassination still smoldered. I guess the message from Paul VI would have been wasted on my parents. By that time, I had just become the eldest of eight kids. 

The response from many in the church, including priests and bishops, was swift and dramatic. In November 1968, at their regular semiannual conference, the 235 Catholic bishops of the U.S. were targeted for demonstrations by dissident priests and laymen. The day before, 3,500 laymen rallied at the Mayflower hotel in support of 41 local priests who had been disciplined by Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle for criticizing Humanae Vitae.

At one point, 130 priests burst into the lobby of the Washington Hilton hotel, where the bishops met, to stage a sit-in in support of the censured clerics. On another night, 120 laymen demonstrated in the Hilton lobby for two hours. They sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Impossible Dream, and prayed for the disciplined priests to be granted due process and for "the proper use of authority in the church."[1]

According to Father John Brady, five of the dissident priests, otherwise homeless, had lived in the old rectory at Saint Joseph’s in Pomfret for almost a year during those heady , tumultuous days.

Against this backdrop, Archbishop Sheen was coming to speak to the priests of Washington—and to set a mission in motion that still continues today.

Next: Ministr-o-Media


[1] Time, Friday, November 22, 1968,  Catholic Freedom vs. Authority, http://www.remnantnewspaper.com, retrieved 03 Mar 2014


 
 
         In the summer of 1974, I worked the night audit at the Sheraton Northeast in New Carrollton, Maryland. I’d gotten the job in late fall of 1972, hired by a comptroller who’d already given his two weeks’ notice, and was busily crafting ways to screw the owners on his way out the door.

          The interview consisted of two questions: 1) can you run a ten-key adding machine? (I assured him I could not. 2) Can you start tonight? I said I could. So began my career in the hospitality industry, a part-time gig that supported me during my college career. I had not immediately returned to college after my freshman year.  Instead, I had run away from home that summer of 1972 to join a commune called The Children of God. They later morphed into The Family of Love.  In the fall, after having returned home, I was looking for work and fell into the Sheraton job. 

            In that same summer of 1974, Father Brady was presented his first pastorate at a small Catholic Church in Charles County, Maryland. The worldwide Catholic Church was still trying to absorb the shock waves of the Second Vatican Council, convened by a pope many had dismissed upon his election as a caretaker pontiff, too old to do much good or much harm. That pope had wasted little time in making it clear he intended to open the doors and windows and let a fresh breeze blow through Mother church. 

            In New York, a provocative and controversial Catholic archbishop was in the final stages of a lifelong devotion to his church, a career marked by groundbreaking evangelization in the new technologies of first radio, and then television. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and then-Bishop Angelo Roncalli had held similar posts at one time, as Heads of their country's Society for the Propagation of the Faith—the pope’s personal charity. In the case of Roncalli, his service propelled him into a prominence that ultimately led to his coronation as Pope John XXIII--The Good Pope. In Sheen’s case, his unwillingness to do what he saw as the wrong thing in his position led to a flaming fall from grace and ecclesiastical exile.

In the summer of 1974, then-Archbishop William Baum of Washington, DC invited Archbishop Sheen to lead a priest’s retreat for the Archdiocese of Washington. Many of its priests, and the American Catholic Church, were still reeling from the 1967 fallout of the dissident priests who had refused to support the pope’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which forbade the use of contraceptives by Catholics. 

Sheen came to Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, MD, aware that his time on earth was short. He’d been considering how to assure his words lived on after his death. He’d noticed that everywhere cars now were equipped with cassette tape players. At the last minute, his staff scrambled to find an audio house to record the archbishop’s four-day retreat. When the search yielded no commercial house able to respond on such short notice, a Father Michael Arrowsmith of the Archdiocesan Chancery recalled a former Scout Master of his, just up the road, and an expert in audio engineering: Father John Brady. 

Next:  The Uproar of Humanae Vitae