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.

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