Martin Sheen acts on his faith and for social justice


CHARLESTON  To talk to Martin Sheen about Catholicism is to talk about diversity. He is an in-your-face activist for social justice, an introspective Catholic who has returned to the church after a long absence, and an enthusiastic purveyor of spirituality.

While filming “O” a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” centering on basketball, Sheen took a break from shooting to reflect on his faith life. He spoke of regrets yet he has the zeal and conviction of someone who has found paradise lost.

Born Ramon Estevez, Sheen was one of 10 children of a poor Spanish immigrant father and Irish mother. He took the stage name Martin Sheen in honor of his idol, the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.

He is no saint, but he is down-to-earth, introducing himself to starstruck extras on the set, shaking hands, looking into people’s eyes. Courteous and considerate of the fact that he is a public figure he is responsive to people seeking him out, even after he attends confession at a local church. The actor readily signs autographs and quickly poses for a picture though he is obviously trying to get somewhere else. Small things, perhaps, but it falls in line with how he feels about his faith.

Sheen insists that he is no different from anyone else. The challenges and temptations that fall before him are no greater than anyone else experiences.

However, some of his views may be different.

Sheen is the first to say he is a liberal, even radical Catholic. Agree with his politics or not, he’ll flat out tell you that he doesn’t like to see American flags in the church saying “it is not a house of state.” He thinks the church is nationalistic and the more nationalistic it is, the less effective it can be. He believes the pope should stay out of politics: “he’s too conservative … he’s throwing himself into the future.”

Yet, he reaches out to his fellow man in service and with the belief that we are all God’s children. He is not afraid of getting arrested when standing up for the causes in which he believes. In keeping with his beliefs, the actor is one of the founding members of the Office of the Americas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the cause of justice and peace through educational programs. Founded in 1983 in Los Angeles, OOA is a recognized source for documentation and analysis of current events in North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America, including the War on Drugs, human rights, and United States foreign policy.

In November, Sheen attended a protest of the School of the America’s at Fort Benning, Ga. Last year, OOA chose Father Roy Bourgeois as their man of the year. Sheen went to the Georgia prison where the Maryknoll priest was serving time for civil disobedience after trespassing onto the Army base and presented him with the award and interviewed him at length.

“He is my hero,” Sheen said.

As an activist, he is frustrated by Americans’ ignorance or inactivity about the plight of people in Central America and the human rights injustices that take place there.

“They don’t have a clue and that’s how our government and military can continue to be so inhuman,” he said. “Coffee keeps Central America enslaved. It’s a cash crop, and they have to pay a debt. The only way to solve the problems is to forgive the debt.”

In the meantime, does he think people like Father Bourgeois make a difference?

“I believe Father Bourgeois is the difference,” he said. “Success is up to God. People do want to make a difference in this country. Part of our problem is having to doing something and having to be successful. We are not a part of God’s success, the world has already been redeemed. The second coming is what fundamentalists focus on, and that is why they lack imagination. The second coming could be when you receive Communion. But don’t wait for God on a cloud while your neighbor is starving to death.”

Since Sheen has been active in social justice, has it gotten any better?

“No,” he said, “it’s worse than ever. Does it stop? Stopping isn’t any of my business. No, I do it for myself, we do it to relieve our own souls. I love my country enough to get in its face. I love my country enough to say, ‘you’re wrong.’ I love my country enough to risk its wrath and tell it when it’s morally wrong.”

It’s not a coincidence that the United States is the biggest abuser of drugs and alcohol, said the actor, who battles his own addictions. “It’s about living in our own fear and doing it our way. We don’t trust God and follow precepts that God gave us to use  we impose our will not God’s will.

“We are armed to the teeth, our children are armed,” Sheen said. “Corporate America is worshiped, and it is running the world. Businesses are downsizing and just throwing people away. Corporate America has no conscience and tons of lawyers.”

But Sheen doesn’t stand on a soapbox, he tries to inspire. He recalled an experience in a coffee shop before the protest at Fort Benning where he saw a couple of kids who were nervous about the possibility of getting arrested for crossing onto the base in a march. He told them to just keep the hymn in mind: “Is it I Lord, I heard you calling in the night, I will go Lord if you lead me …” They seemed to take comfort from that reminder.

Instances like that are where the actor finds affirmation. “That’s strong stuff,” he said, impressed by the teens and college students who turned out at that protest. “That’s the future of the church,” he said. “But it’s women who will carry the faith through.

“Dostoyevsky said that beauty will save the world,” Sheen said, “Women will save the church.”

Almost a daily communicant, Sheen favors what he calls “black and brown” churches.

“I love the black community and the brown community,” he said. “Faith is so alive among the marginal. I prefer to go to a black or brown church. They are mixed with race and the liveliness of the Pentecostal but have the tradition of the Catholic. There, the women are running the show.”

With the vantage point of having been to Catholic churches all over the world, Sheen said he sees changes.

“We’re on a pilgrimage,” he said. “Faith has to be a living vibrant thing. If it’s dead, it belongs in a museum.”

But Sheen regrets that his children are not practicing Catholics and wishes that he had sent them to parochial school.

“It’s a disappointment that I did not give them a choice in the beginning,” he laments, “but when it’s going down, you just don’t know.”

When asked if he still tries to bring his children round to the faith, his son Ramon, who was visiting him on the set, rolls his eyes in a comic gesture.

“He’s very moved, and very motivated,” Ramon says.

Having lost his own faith for “many years,” Sheen credits Mother Teresa with bringing him back into the fold. He spent time with her when she was on a peace mission during the Gulf War. He met her in Rome in February 1991. She had stopped there because the Vatican had approached her about helping mediate to end the war. The pope made pleas for peace and asked Mother Teresa to take a writ to The Hague and present it. Sheen’s lawyer met with her for one-and-a-half hours explaining to her about the world court. She didn’t know about it, the actor related, and she asked the lawyer how they made heads of state obey. He explained that it was just a moral victory.

It is no surprise that Mother Teresa could have such an influence on one man, and Sheen came back to the faith in May 1991.

“It was a very tough decision,” he explained. “I had to decide to live an honest life, but I came back out of love and joy. The way I look at my faith is that it’s a reflection of who I am. If you’re on a journey to find God, you will find yourself.”

For inspiration, Sheen reads Thomas Merton and uses Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled as a reference. His favorite prayer is the Jesus Mercy prayer.

“It doesn’t get any more close to the bone than that,” Sheen said. “I take the Gospel seriously. We have to find God’s presence, first of all, in our own brokenness. We have to find it in service. We grow by serving.”

Sheen calls himself a radical.

“But, you know, the essence of the Gospel of Jesus was extremely radical, and that’s why they killed him,” he said.

Perhaps more surprising for an instantly recognizable movie star, is that Mass is a necessity.

“You have to be nurtured by your faith. Part of our journey is to be nurtured and give praise. It’s a personal thing. I don’t speak for others, I can’t. I don’t limit the sacramentalness of life to church. It is in community and brokenness. Sacramentalness of life, sacredness of life, you have to stand against darkness. The church is not always there.”

All topics come back to social justice for Sheen.

“I don’t think you can be Catholic and not have some frame of reference for social justice,” he asserted. “Jesus was trying to teach us that to be responsible for miracles. The greatest miracle is that we too are made sons and daughters of God. He made us miracles to find God in us and in others. If you can’t find God everywhere, than you can’t find him anywhere.”

Politics subside, and Sheen closes the interview reflectively.

“I enjoy being Catholic,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. It’s a gift, and I enjoy it, receiving it and sharing it. If I can find my humanity then I am free. If your religion defines your humanity, the more it demands you be more human. It takes compassion and forgiveness, and love and service. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you are searching for God, you will find yourself.”