Rose PACATTE. Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. 142. $12.95 pb ISBN: 978-0-8146-3712-8. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, University Heights, OH 44118.

 This modest volume is part of a series by Liturgical Press on “People of God.” Many holy people have not been recognized officially as saints by the church. This series explores their lives. Featured are some obvious suspects like Thomas Merton and Oscar Romero, as well as a dollop of popes: John XXIII and Francis. Happily less evident candidates, those not members of the clergy or religious orders, have been added. The actor, Martin Sheen, is one of them.

Martin Sheen’s journey in faith is one of stops and starts. He was raised in a large poor Catholic family in Dayton, Ohio, but gradually stopped practicing his inherited religion. His mother, an immigrant from Ireland, came from a family active in the Irish struggle against England. She died young, leaving her husband with eight children to raise.

The relationship between Ramon Gerard Estevez−his given name−and his Spanish father was strained, in part because of the son’s choice of career. “Pop” admired his son’s accomplishments, but rarely acknowledged them. He had hoped for something different from Ramon (Martin).

Martin successfully flunked the entrance exam to the University of Dayton, believing that a college education was unnecessary to a budding actor. He and his brothers in their youth were neither saintly nor sober. Early on young Martin developed a chip on his shoulder along with a capacity for social activism, probably part of his maternal genes. As a caddy he organized a strike to form a union at the private club where caddies were treated with meager tips and less respect. This penchant for protest remained with him even as his faith ebbed. His heroes included Kennedy and King, Mother Theresa and Cesar Chavez. No plaster piety here.

As his career took shape, his personal life fell apart. Already having abandoned his Catholic faith, he embraced a devout commitment to alcohol. A heart attack paired with a nervous breakdown during the filming of Apocalypse Now began the long journey back to his religious roots.

Sheen’s piety is traditional: frequent Mass, sacrament of penance, and rosary. His life is centered on social justice, including participation in multiple acts of civil disobedience, arrests, and donations to justice causes. He practices an exquisite respect and care for every person he encounters. While such activity was already habitual, now it is nourished by a life of prayer and theological discourse.

The author interviewed family members and friends, gleaning some interesting anecdotes. Occasionally these stories or quotations are prolonged and tend to distract from the purpose of the book: to highlight the faith story of the subject. The best testimonies to Martin’s spirituality and life come from his own lips. His words exhibit a modesty and deep faith that allow the reader to see the real and good person beyond the Captain Willard of Apocalypse Now or the Jed Bartlet of West Wing.

While this is not a work of great literature, the book chronicles a man’s deep conversion from an alcoholic in denial to a person of purposeful piety and expansive social justice work. As the author notes, Sheen qualifies for inclusion in this series due to “the arc of his commitment to the pilgrim’s journey, the way he strives to live an integrated personal and public, active Catholic life.”