Sr. Rose Pacatte has penned Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way, a spiritual biography of the American actor. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Inside the spiritual Martin Sheen

  • April 19, 2015

No one had a bad word to say about Martin Sheen. Sr. Rose Pacatte tried to find someone to disparage the Catholic actor while researching his spiritual biography. But no luck.

“He’s so open with his mistakes and his alcoholism and how he was with his family, that there’s no dirt,” said Pacatte.

“There’s (Martin’s son and Hollywood bad boy) Charlie, but I wasn’t there to interview Charlie. Charlie’s not ready for a biography yet.”

Pacatte, film critic and director of the Pauline Centre for Media Studies in Los Angeles, wrote Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way as part of the People of God book series by Liturgical Press. The series features Catholic figures such as Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, Dorothy Day and now Sheen.

Sheen is best known for his role as Catholic president Josiah Bartlet in the television series The West Wing, which earned him four Screen Actors Guild awards and a Golden Globe. He has also been recognized for several popular film roles, including his portrayals of Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now, Oliver Queenan in The Departed, Frank Minis Johnson in Selma and, more recently, Uncle Ben Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man movies.

Sheen’s lengthy career has allowed the public to see him throughout his rise to fame, his descent into drugs and alcohol, and his return to the Catholic faith. As a spiritual biography, Pacatte emphasizes that this is not just another celebrity biography.

“It’s about his relationship with Jesus. He talks about the Eucharist. He talks about the Church as community,” she said.

“It hits all the sacraments one way or the other because, except for ordination, he received all the sacraments.”

The biography begins at his First Communion. Sheen, who was born Ramon Antonia Gerardo Estevez, was about eight years old. After the Mass and the traditional breakfast in the church hall, it began to drizzle. Sheen grabbed the umbrella and ran off with his friends, leaving his mother to walk home and ruin her new hat.

Sheen had a rowdy childhood, growing up with six brothers and one sister. Pacatte writes that Sheen was raised in “a disciplined, thoroughly Catholic family and all received an excellent Catholic education for 12 years. And all the children of Francisco and Mary Ann would have trouble with alcohol.”

Sheen’s love of movies and storytelling emerged at the age of seven. But the most poignant part of the book is the description of the launch of his acting career in his early 20s. Pop disapproved, but Sheen was determined to get his chance in New York. He sold his class ring and a priest from his parish loaned him $300 to help get him started. The priest would continue to send money periodically.

Sheen grew up in a home in which drinking was common. So it was no surprise that when the actor started to earn some spending money, he began to frequent New York bars. He became a steady drinker and reached his lowest point on the set of Apocalypse Now.

The famous opening sequence of the movie shows his character, Willard, in a cheap Saigon hotel drinking heavily while waiting for his next assignment. The scene wasn’t much of a stretch for Sheen. It was his 36th birthday and he was drunk.

“He was stone drunk while making Apocalypse Now,” said Pacatte. “When he crashed his fist into that mirror, that really happened. That was his blood. He was doing all of this strange stuff and Francis (Coppola, the director) said ‘Do you really want to do this,’ and (Sheen) said, ‘Yes, I’m exploring something.’ He wasn’t eating. He was eating junk food and he was smoking.”

When filming the scene, Sheen said he realized he was wrestling with his demons. “I used the licence to go to a place that was both cathartic and terrifying,” he said. “My poor wife, Janet, got a glimpse of this poor devil in that sequence, the anger, fear, resentment and disappointment that had built up over 36 years.”

Sheen’s wife and four children were on the set with him that day. Right after he filmed that famous scene, Sheen suffered a heart attack and a nervous breakdown at the same time. At the hospital, he was given the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The book describes this experience as his personal apocalypse.

It was after his near-death experience that Sheen underwent his spiritual conversion.  Visiting Paris in 1981, he said his spirit was transformed after he finished reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

“When I finished reading it, I put it down and literally got up and walked to St. Joseph Church,” said Sheen. “This Irish Passionist priest opened the door and said ‘What’s going on?’ I told him, ‘I have been away from the Church for a very long time and I’d like to go to confession.’ He made an appointment to meet with me the next day, and I have never looked back.”

The book details Sheen’s deep involvement with his Church community at home and overseas. He supports several charitable organizations, such as Free the Children and the Catholic Worker Movement.

Pacatte said Sheen is outspoken about living out his faith through activism. By her count, the actor has been arrested 67 times at political protests.

“He goes on the line but it’s his faith that makes him do that. It’s his belief in non-violence and making a difference in the world and speaking truth to power,” she said.

“If you look at his Internet Movie Database page, he’s always working, and that’s because he’s supporting a lot of good works.”

Pacatte says the point of the Sheen biography is to reach out and inspire. Sheen is a well known and respected figure in Hollywood. Pacatte believes the story of his relationship with God will show how people can overcome the low points in their lives by working hard.

The spiritual biography is a short read with stories that have never been told before from family and friends.

“We want this for the person in the pew. We want it very accessible,” she said. “It was a challenge to (write about) somebody who’s alive because they’re not done yet. His greatest years may still be yet to come.”

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