"Big Four" Highlights


Sheen Highlights Gospel Parable

Martin Sheen asks for prayers for his prodigal son

By James Breig

The misbehavior of actor Charlie Sheen is too often described in terms – like “misbehavior” – that make him seem like a naughty boy, rather than a repeat offender whose run-ins with the law have resulted from his serial abuse of women, alcohol and drugs.

His latest string of violence and illegal drug use is well chronicled, and it doesn’t take the dark heart of a cynic to wonder when he will crash to earth. As fathers, our hearts go out to Martin Sheen, who is suffering the trials of the father in Jesus’ parable, waiting patiently, and with hope, for his prodigal son to return.

Charlie & Martin Sheen

Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed Martin Sheen, who went through his own period of excess before returning to the Catholic faith he was born into. A native of Ohio, he was baptized Ramon Estevez to immigrant parents: a father from Spain and a mother from Ireland.

When he entered acting, Ramon chose a stage name that honored famous Catholic media figure Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was a star of radio and TV from the 1930s through the 1950s. Early in his career, Martin Sheen made guest appearances on the classic TV series Naked City and Route 66, and acted on soap operas. He also appeared three times on The Catholic Hour.

In 1967, Sheen had his breakthrough role: the adult son in the film version of a Broadway play, The Subject Was Roses. That began a string of starring roles in Catch 22, Badlands, The Missiles of October (as Robert F. Kennedy), The Execution of Private Slovik and Apocalypse Now.

He also had a penchant for films about faith: Catholics on television, in which he played a priest; Gandhi, which won the best-picture Oscar in 1982; and Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, a TV movie in which he played Peter Maurin, co-founder, with Day, of the Catholic Worker movement.

Sheen more recently came into millions of TV rooms every week when as the president in West Wing, a long-running TV series about politics.

In 1985, he told me that he was in many films about religion because “I am drawn to the light, whether it’s Catholic or Buddhist or Muslim.”

But he didn’t always feel that way. Raised a Catholic, he left the Church for several years, only to be jolted back to his faith when he suffered a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now in the mid-1970s. “I came back [to the Church] after being alone in the world for a lot of years,” Sheen told me. “I need the structure, the sacraments, the support and nourishment of the Church.”

Well-known for his activism in the arenas of peace and social justice, Sheen’s return to the faith re-introduced him to the Church’s involvement with the needy. “When you go to the ghetto or where there’s trouble, the Church is there,” he told me. “When the media went to the Horn of Africa and found the famine, the Church was already there.”

During my interview with him, Sheen confessed to one regret – his departure from the Church coincided with his four children’s formative years.

“Naturally,” he admitted, “I regret that I didn’t raise them as Catholics, but I can’t do anything about the past. I didn’t do anything damaging to them, but I didn’t inspire them either. My career and my self were the focal points of my life, not them. That changed. Now I balance my career with the rest of my life, and my children and wife are more important to me. I feel guilty that I didn’t do that earlier, but I have to be forgiving of myself as well as of others.”

A quarter-century after saying that, I wonder what Martin Sheen would say about Charlie, who was baptized Carlos Estevez. Did Martin influence his wayward son by not raising him as an active Catholic, by not being a spiritual role-model, by not taking corrective action early on?

The latest outburst of misconduct (to put it mildly) by Charlie Sheen has led his father to plead with the public – not for understanding or tolerance, but for something deeper.

“Lift him up” to God, Martin said. “Pray for him.”

In this he models the father of the Prodigal Son, praying and waiting patiently for his flesh and blood to return.

Many men have become saints after heeding the prayers of their loved ones and turning from evil ways. St. Augustine was brought to God, in part, by the prayers of his mother, St. Monica. Martin Sheen has asked us to pray for his son’s conversion. It might seem like a hopelessly futile, even utterly blasphemous request – until we think of the admonition of Jesus to besiege his Father with supplications.

In Matthew’s Gospel (21:21-22), Jesus said, "If you have faith and do not waver,… even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."

Let’s pray that this will be the case with Charlie Sheen.

James Breig is a veteran Catholic journalist.

(Homepage photo and above photo: Martin and Charlie Sheen are shown together at a 2006 awards ceremony. Credit:FilmMagic.)