Our Lady of Malibu parishioners contribute time, treasure and talent to produce a film documentary of their beloved pastor emeritus, which premiered at a special screening in Calabasas July 17.
Just a few days after Our Lady of Malibu pastor emeritus Msgr. John Virgilius Sheridan was laid to rest after succumbing to heart failure following a 2010 single-car accident a month prior in which he was critically injured, several grieving parishioners gathered to share “a monsignor story” at the weekly Sunday Symposium after the 8:30 a.m. Mass.
The idea arose to “do something” to commemorate the saintly life of the 94-year-old Irish-born churchman, a member of the first theology class to attend the newly-opened St. John’s Seminary in 1939 who touched countless people over the years in his roles as priest, pastor, interfaith leader, religious broadcaster, author, Tidings columnist, poet and retreat master.
Last week, three years and 10 months after an OLM parish committee came up with the idea to produce a DVD documentary on their beloved pastor emeritus, “The Radical Kindness of Monsignor John V. Sheridan,” a one-and-a-half hour film narrated by parishioner/actor Martin Sheen and professionally directed by Jeremy Culver, had its premiere on a big screen at Edwards Theatres in Calabasas July 17.
The screening — paid for by an anonymous donor — was packed with parishioners, several of whom appear in the film telling their personal stories about monsignor’s acts of kindness, nonjudgmental nature, brilliant mind, and love of poetry and music. Humorous anecdotes about his difficulty remembering people’s names, interrupting himself mid-conversation to pursue another line of thought and his technological challenges in working the Skype camera to talk to far-flung friends are also lovingly recounted.
“Msgr. Sheridan was genuinely a saint,” said Father Bill Kerze, OLM pastor, in his remarks before the screening. Reading from a petition that was drafted with help from parishioner Doug Kmiec (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta and Pepperdine law professor who was also injured in the car crash that injured Msgr. Sheridan and killed former OLM principal Sister of St. Louis Mary Campbell), Father Kerze described Msgr. Sheridan as a devoted priest whose kindness “brought countless persons to the church.” The petition, with parishioner signatures and a copy of the DVD, will be sent to Rome in hopes of getting canonization procedures started for monsignor.
The documentary takes viewers on a journey from Msgr. Sheridan’s Irish upbringing and early brush with death, his accomplishments as a young parish priest in Los Angeles championing disenfranchised inner-city youth, his work as a writer/broadcaster, his distinguished service as director of the Catholic Information Center in downtown Los Angeles and his 45 years of service as a parish priest at Our Lady of Malibu.
“I think the film was outstanding,” Barbara Kearsley, wife of former Malibu mayor Ken Kearsley, told The Tidings after watching the documentary. “As they said many times in the film, Msgr. Sheridan was the most nonjudgmental person you could ever meet. His legacy is love. He was sincere, and when he would ask my husband to jump, he would say ‘How high?’ He would do anything in the world for him.”
“Msgr. Sheridan had a profound effect on our souls,” said OLM parishioner Brian Oppenheimer, co-producer and member of the DVD committee that includes producers Birute Vileisis, Paul Contino, and Jim Zatolokin; and website coordinator Sonia Ottusch. “We really did feel that we had a saint in our midst.”
“He really, really was a special person — so kind,” said Sister of St. Louis Rita McCormack, who was OLM principal when monsignor first arrived at the parish in the mid-’60s. “I remember there were 5-6 of us [religious in the school] and he sent a message up to us with [an enclosed] check saying ‘You’re all very tired.’ He sent us away for a vacation to make sure we were going to get a good few days, and it was beautiful.”
Angela Birthistle, who attended the film screening with her husband Tom, both longtime friends of monsignor, remembers visiting the retired priest in Malibu. “We walked with him about every six weeks down on the bluffs, and then we would come back up for breakfast, and we would be there probably until about 3 o’clock. We would go home and there was always something we learned.”
She believes monsignor’s prayers were pivotal during a family crisis. “My first grandson was a two-pound premature baby not expected to survive and I had monsignor praying for him,” Angela shared. “He always asked how the ‘Saint Mac’ was, and the child turned out to be absolutely perfect. I give him credit, because he kept in contact with us.”
Actor Martin Sheen, who took part of a question and answer panel following the film, said he was impressed while watching the film at seeing how many members of the parish community openly expressed their feelings about their beloved pastor emeritus.
“I began to realize how powerful a community we really are, how lucky we are to know each other, to serve with each other, to worship together,” Sheen said. “It is a very joyful community, and I’ve never been so proud of it as watching all those people tonight celebrating this one man. He ignited, it seems to me, something within each and every one of us.
“We used to talk a lot, monsignor and I, about human nature, about the brokenness of human nature. And I remember he talked about how beautiful our broken nature was; because it was the only way God could reach us. And I thought that made all the sense in the world,” Sheen said.
“I connected with monsignor through all the years I knew him about that brokenness, and how I came to embrace it and love it and see it in others, accept it in myself, and give thanks and praise for it — to be human was what he was all about,” he added.
“But, he was reflected in all of us in this film — it is an extraordinary reflection of who we are as a community. I felt terribly moved and proud of all that was said about him and done for him,” Sheen said. “We were all reflecting each other through him, but it’s really about us as well; I’m deeply grateful for that. Congratulations, you really caught something.”
n“The Radical Kindness of Monsignor John V. Sheridan” DVD will be available for purchase ($25) next month. The DVD extras will include a Mass with Msgr. Sheridan and Sister Campbell serving as altar server as well as an interview with monsignor talking about the importance of St. Francis of Assisi. Visit the parish website, www.olmalibu.org for details or call the OLM parish office, (310) 456-2361 near the end of August.