Who was The Most Reverend John R. Sheets, S.J. ?

To Believe Is to Exist: Theological Reflections for a Time of Crisis
By John R. Sheets, S.J.
Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1986
Pp. 288. Paper. $14.95
Review by Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Alma, Michigan
Published in Review for Religious, 46/1 (1987): 154-155; revised 2008

This is a collection of twenty-three articles that were written over a number of years. They have been reprinted here and arranged in three sections: Spiritual Life, the Spirituality of Ministry, and the Theology and Spirituality of the Religious Life. While the subtitle of the book refers to “crisis,” this is not intended to be confrontational. Whenever a difficult contemporary situation is analyzed, for example, the question of celibacy in our time, Father Sheets always goes back to the origins of the issue. His method is to research first the scriptural data in both Testaments, and then to proceed through the Fathers, the whole tradition and finally to see how the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar documents (such as Redemptionis Donum) treat the matter.

What is most satisfying is the fresh and lively language employed in this kind of exposition. The author skillfully recasts ancient truths and insights into blight and convincing English. He is especially to be noted for comparisons, often from the world of nature and for measured citations from contemporary writers. These include Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Heidegger, Bernard Lonergan, Abraham Heschel, Karl Rahner, and Pope John Paul II. The sensitivity to language noted above is evident in the pains the author takes to define and clarify important terms — blessing, mystery, ministry, transcendent.

If there is one dominant theme binding all the articles together in this collection, it is that of grace. This is really a book about the grace of vocation, the vocation of the Christian, of the priest, or of the religious. Perhaps in the charged atmosphere of recent years we have not heard as much about this as we should have. As St. Paul says, we have been “grasped.” Grace is not something; it is the life of Christ within us as we are taken up into a higher dimension as Christians. The religious life is a specification of the more basic Christian vocation which is explained in terms of the meaning of grace.

An unusually large number of typographical errors makes this book defective. If you don’t catch some of them, the whole thought can be changed. There is no index of names. The publisher says that “grateful acknowledgment is made to the magazines in which these essays first appeared,” but it would have been desirable to give the dates and places for the sake of future researchers and to set the context for some remarks.

Finally, this is not “popular” writing in the superficial sense, nor is it technical. It just isn’t for the beginner, but would be most helpful to the mature, serious reader who wishes to deepen his faith and sense of vocation, whether lay, priest, or religious.

Biographical Note about the Author:

The Most Reverend John R. Sheets, S.J., Auxiliary Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana, was an eminent Catholic theologian and author in the last half of the twentieth century.  He was particularly esteemed for his scholarly and insightful works in the areas of Christian faith, morality, and spirituality. “To Believe Is to Exist: Theological Reflections for a Time of Crisis” illustrates the quality of his intellect and spiritual depth.

John Richard Sheets was born 21 September 1922 in Omaha, Nebraska, the second of five children of Fred H. and Agnes O’Donnell Sheets.  He grew up in the Catholic community of Omaha and entered the Society of Jesus in 1940.  His preparation for the priesthood included studies for a bachelor’s degree at St. Louis University and a licentiate in theology at St. Mary’s College in Kansas.  He was ordained a priest on 17 June 1953.  In 1957 he obtained a doctorate in theology from the Jesuit theologate in Innsbruck, Austria. Among his teachers were Karl Rahner and Josef Jungmann.

He joined the faculty of theology at Marquette University after tertianship and final vows. Along with Bernard Cooke, he founded the doctoral program in theology.  He served as novice master at St. Bonifacius, Minnesota, for one year, 1966-1967. The following year, 1968, he was one of only two professors of theology at Marquette University who refused to sign the protest against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae vitae. The other was William J. Kelly, S.J.

Father Sheets also taught theology at Creighton University. Eventually he held the Chair of the Theology Department at Creighton University.  Today, in memory of his pursuit of excellence in study and ministry, graduate students in theology at Creighton enjoy the opportunity for financial support through the Bishop John R. Sheets Scholarship for the Masters of Arts in Theology.  In 1974 he founded Creighton University’s Summer Program in Christian Spirituality, which soon attracted students from across the nation. That same year he visited Switzerland to collaborate with Hans Urs von Balthasar, the founder of Communio: International Catholic Review.

Father Sheets’s scholarly career made him a frequent contributor to spiritual periodicals and the author of books and articles on Christian faith.  He was considered a brilliant pedagogue by his students, and he was in frequent demand as a retreat master and guest lecturer on theological topics. As early as 1974 he was an opponent of the supposed ordination of women in the Catholic Church.

On 14 May 1991, Father Sheets was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and he was ordained Bishop on 25 June 1991.  Bishop Sheets retired from his pastoral responsibilities on 23 September 1997 and died in Milwaukee on 16 April 2003.  He was a priest for fifty years and a bishop for twelve. He suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease at the end of his life.

Besides his academic and pastoral contributions, Bishop Sheets was an enthusiastic outdoorsman and prayerful mystic.

Besides the gifts of natural creation to which he was attracted and which intrigued him wherever he looked, he also loved the more cerebral recreation of reading poetry and watching serious European films. It was said that he could perceive the gift of all God’s creation in a drop of water.


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