Oh, May: the month of flowers, of the fullness of spring, of mothers, and especially of the Blessed Mother, Mary, the Mother of God. I must confess that I didn’t quite realize the convergence of these annual symbols when I selected my next book for this column; the Holy Spirit surprises me like that sometimes. I imagine that her intimate meeting with the Holy Spirit also surprised Mary, and her unique relationship with the Trinity gives her unspeakable joy even now in heaven. It certainly called to her devoted son, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, and inspired him to write the contemporary classic The World’s First Love: Mary, the Mother of God, which in turn inspired me.
It helps to have a little background on Archbishop Sheen before approaching The World’s First Love. He grew up in a churchgoing Catholic family in Illinois, becoming a well-known and well-loved preacher in adulthood. His 1950s television show, Life Is Worth Living, easily competed with the most famous programs of the day. (You can see samples on YouTube and EWTN.) His intelligence, rich voice, and skill at speaking aided in the conversion of countless souls to Christ. Currently, his cause for canonization is underway, with beatification expected fairly soon.
One thing I never picked up from watching Archbishop’s sheen’s show and recordings of his other talks was how much he loves Mary. Boy, does he love Mary! The World’s First Love is divided into two parts: The Woman the World Loves and the World the Woman Loves. The first part is dedicated to meditations on the life of Mary. I consider myself fairly well versed in Catholic stuff, but I had never considered when Mary would have told others (besides Joseph) about the virgin birth. I guess I always assumed she would have been talking about it from the beginning. Until the Resurrection, though, who would have believed her? Even the apostles could barely believe that the Resurrection had come, and Jesus had been telling them about it for years! No, it makes sense that Mary would have kept that secret in her heart as she awaited the terrible day of the Crucifixion. If seeing Jesus alive wasn’t enough proof, she had another knowledge bomb to drop.
Similarly, Archbishop Sheen makes a fantastic case for St. Joseph’s being a young man, not an old one. In brief, he emphasizes that if Mary’s virginity was so critical to her role in salvation history, why would we attribute Joseph’s chastity simply to the inability of old age? Why wouldn’t his purity be an additional sign of his justification and worthiness to be the earthly father of the Son of God? Archbishop Sheen even connects the seven last words of Christ to the seven words of Mary. He is insightful and skillful. My mind is blown.
The second part is dedicated mainly to Mary’s influence in the world. Archbishop Sheen tackles such down-to-Earth topics as the relationship between men and women, feminism, the Rosary, and current (for him) politics. It is important to keep in mind that Archbishop Sheen wrote his book from a specific position at a specific moment in time. Writing in 1952, Archbishop Sheen is adamant fighting the rise of communism and continuing the work of worldwide evangelization. His chapter on Mary and Muslims is quite diplomatic (ever wonder why Fatima is a city in Portugal and the daughter of Muhammad?), but he has little love for communists and the developers of the atomic bomb. I would be interested to see what he’d think of the new atheism, globalization and the Internet, and the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.
This is not a book to casually skim; it’s for detailed reading and reflection. As with other spiritual classics I’ve reviewed here (Theology for Beginners, Orthodoxy), The World’s First Love is written by a very smart man for people who are well educated. If you’re not already familiar with the Gospels and with terms and phrases associated with Mary and Jesus, you will probably get overwhelmed pretty quickly.
If you have a good foundation, though, you will find much food for thought here. As I was reading, I missed hearing Sheen’s voice and the power behind his words, but I had greater opportunities to listen when I was enlightened by something I read, and I could take it to prayer. If you haven’t called your heavenly mother lately, I think she would love to hear how Archbishop Sheen told you all about her.