As the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture gets ready to kick off its third season this fall, I got a behind the scenes tour from Executive Director William Spencer Reilly.
It was a behind the scenes tour without leaving my office at the New York Catholic Center. That’s because Reilly brought the same passion, intellectual curiosity and vision to last week’s phone interview that he brings to the workings of the Sheen Center, located on Bleecker Street in Lower Manhattan.
The Sheen Center will host 200 events between now and season’s end in June. They run across a wide spectrum of theater, music, film, talks and art. Reilly said the Sheen Center, now fully staffed with 12 full-time employees, after recently adding a couple, is ready for the challenge.
It’s not only his staff members, whom he cited as friendly, cooperative and caring, who make the Sheen Center what it is. The place has a clear vision, evident in its mission statement, which says it is “a forum to highlight the true, the good and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages.” One of the challenges, he said, is to bring Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living” message alive for generations of young people who never heard him on the radio or saw him on television, except possibly on YouTube.
The “Life Is Worth Living” message comes through in programming that “is intentionally non-nihilistic,” which gives the Sheen Center a unique, or at least unusual, position in the New York City market, Reilly believes.
“A lot of the people who are coming, their interest is piqued—they want to come to other things,” he said. “Some are not Catholic. It pushes you toward the light. Everyone wants that, whether they consciously do or not.”
It certainly shouldn’t be a surprise that “the genius of Catholicism,” a phrase Reilly uses readily, is on display at the Sheen Center. The center, after all, is a special project of the Archdiocese of New York. As we spoke, Reilly said both Cardinal Dolan and Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, the vicar general of the archdiocese, have offered extraordinary support for the center’s programming and its potential.
“This place has caught fire,” Reilly said. “They’re very supportive of that and understand how this can be an unusual and special and powerful form of the New Evangelization.”
The vision comes through in Sheen Center programming. Reilly enthusiastically promoted a bunch of the new offerings, of which we can mention only a few. He started off with a staged reading of “Daylight,” a one-woman new play about Dorothy Day by Bill Cain and starring Emmy nominee Ann Dowd of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” That will be performed in the center’s Black Box Theater Nov. 19. Reilly is hopeful that it can be a show with “legs” that can go beyond the Sheen Center to tour the upper counties of the archdiocese and perhaps beyond.
Because of increased video capabilities, including working with partner Catholic agencies, Reilly plans to begin live streaming programming to the upper counties of the archdiocese this season. He offered the suggestion that the pastor of a parish in Dutchess County might want to host a potluck supper with 10 or 20 parishioners to watch a Sheen production. To further that aim, Reilly has committed to attend two deanery meetings this fall and hopes to visit others.
The features of the 274-seat Loreto Theater, though scaled to the size of an Off-Broadway house, are so finely crafted that it can feel like you are in a Broadway theater, Reilly said. “It’s an incredible room,” he said.
A timely talk presentation Reilly was enthused about is the first of a three-part series on “Civility in America,” which will focus on religion. (The next two parts, scheduled for the spring, are about media and politics.) The speakers at the Dec. 13 event, presented by the Sheen Center and America Media, will be New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Father James Martin, S.J., of America magazine. A key question to be addressed is, “How do you feel people who think the way you think can better position their message, so that people have a chance of really listening to you?” Reilly said.
The third event I’ll mention is the Sheen Center Christmas Book Fair, set for Dec. 1-20 in the lobby of the Loreto Theater. Sheen is billing it as the perfect way to get your Christmas shopping done with offerings for Catholic adults and children selected by America’s leading Catholic publishers. Reilly’s idea is to get people to read more, talk more and form community. That sounds right up Catholic New York’s alley as well.