Editor’s note: This article went to press before news broke of the postponement of Fulton Sheen’s beatification. Upon learning of this breaking news, William Doino Jr, the author of this piece, wanted to make this statement: “When I wrote and completed my article celebrating Archbishop’s Sheen’s life and legacy, shortly before this latest news broke, I had no idea any questions remained about his Cause: I was convinced, like millions of his other supporters, including Bishop Jenky and indeed the Holy See, that he was a man and priest of outstanding virtue, fully deserving of beatification. I hope and pray that this latest delay in his beatification, for mysterious reasons, eventually ends in his total vindication and that his beatification moves forward again, on a new date. But if something absolutely credible and irrefutable prevents that from happening, I will accept the judgment of the Church and be willing to write an analysis of why his Cause proved unworthy.
“We have all seen past leaders of the Church, who were widely respected and loved, suddenly and shockingly fall from grace, and so we have to be prepared for the worst. On the same token, Archbishop Sheen is innocent until proven guilty (assuming a new allegation, which needs to be thoroughly investigated, has been made); and we have also seen prominent Catholics accused of doing something seriously wrong — only to be completely exonerated in the end, and had their good names restored. I think this is a time for Catholics to pray that the full truth behind this delay soon emerges, so the Church can then make a final decision based on all the facts and best evidence.”
A long-awaited blessing finally arrived this year for admirers of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. On July 6, “with overwhelming joy”, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, announced that Pope Francis had approved a miracle attributed to the Venerable archbishop’s intercession, setting his beatification date for December 21 at St Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria – the very church Sheen was ordained in 100 years ago. Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect for the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, will lead the beatification ceremony, after which Archbishop Sheen will be known as Blessed – one step away from canonisation, which would require the approval of a second miracle.
It was the second major victory for Peoria this summer (which has promoted Sheen’s Cause since 2002), coming just a week after the Archdiocese of New York agreed to transfer Sheen’s remains to a tomb at St Mary’s, ending a long legal struggle which delayed the archbishop’s Cause and frustrated his many supporters.
But Bishop Jenky and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York are now on good terms – their dispute having been amicably resolved – with both celebrating the advancement of Sheen’s Cause.
And for good reason.
The Catholic Church in America had never produced anyone like Fulton Sheen before his rise to prominence in the early 20th century, and hasn’t seen anyone like him since. He was a one-of-a-kind wonder whose legacy not only continues to be felt deeply in America, but well beyond its borders.
No one could have predicted Sheen’s meteoric rise to fame, especially given his humble origins. Born in 1895, to Newt and Delia Sheen, who ran a small farm in El Paso Illinois, he was the eldest of four children, all of whom were raised Catholic. Fulton was fortunate to have parents who embraced the wisdom he would later express: “When a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for that child in heaven, and woe to the parents who raise a child without consciousness of that eternal crown.”
Devout and intellectually gifted, the young Fulton decided to become a priest and scholar. After attending Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota, he was ordained, and then set sail for the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium. Five years later, with a major degree in philosophy, Sheen returned to teach at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. For the next two decades, he became a fixture there, teaching well-attended courses on the “Philosophy of Religion”, “God and Society” and “God and Modern Philosophy”.
It was not just as a teacher that the future archbishop excelled, however. He was an exceptional speaker, and soon invited to host and talk at many prominent events. As early as 1926, when he was only 30, Fr Sheen was invited to record a series of Lenten sermons for a New York radio station. The following year, he was chosen to preach at Catholic University’s annual Mass on the feast of St Thomas Aquinas.
After Pope Pius XI made him a monsignor, Sheen became the radio host of The Catholic Hour, which aired from 1930 to 1950, and presented Catholic teaching in a vibrant, life-affirming way. Drawing on his deep knowledge of theology, philosophy and spirituality, he preached the Gospel unambiguously, and explained how its principles could be applied to vital personal decisions and the social issues of the day.
As his speaking engagements increased, so did his popularity as a teacher, and this tested his stamina, but Sheen embraced the challenge as he did the Cross – for the love of Christ. In 1937 he wrote to a friend: “During the past year letters demanding personal attention have run between 75 and 100 a day … This coupled with classes never given with less than six hours preparation for each lecture has left me physically exhausted. However, the good to be done is such that one dare not shrink from its opportunities for apostolate.”
On top of these obligations, Sheen began writing dozens of erudite and acclaimed books. Many of them – The Life of Christ, Old Errors and New Labels, Calvary and the Mass, Peace of Soul and The Priest is not His Own – remain in print, and have been widely translated, as new generations of Catholics discover their timelessness and brilliance.
Even with all his early accomplishments, however, Sheen had yet to reach his peak. In 1950, he was appointed the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, raising millions for the Church’s missions. Consecrated a bishop the next year, he launched the television programme for which he is most famous, Life Is Worth Living.
Almost as soon as it premiered, it was a runaway success, reaching an estimated 30 million viewers – making it the most widely seen religious series in television history.
The amazing thing about it is that there were no elaborate set designs or gimmicks to attract viewers: there was only Bishop Sheen, with his chalk and handy blackboard, speaking and teaching about every aspect of life, from a robustly Catholic perspective, and from the depths of his heart.
During its duration (1952-57), Sheen won an Emmy Award and appeared on the cover of Time, but he accomplished even more than that. During that era, Catholicism was still held in deep suspicion by many non-Catholics, but Sheen’s winsome style, combined with his convincing presentation of the faith, broke down walls of prejudice and allowed hesitant non-Catholics to welcome Catholicism into the mainstream of American life. Better yet – thousands of his viewers even became grateful converts. Sheen never doubted they could be won over, explaining: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
After attending every session of Vatican II (1962-65), Sheen continued to speak and write before becoming the Bishop of Rochester, New York (1966-69), then appointed a Titular Archbishop by St Paul VI, before retiring to write his moving autobiography, Treasure in Clay.
Given his extraordinary success, many in the Church have wondered why Fulton Sheen was such an effective evangelist, and what Catholics today might learn from him.
Among the first lessons would certainly be his decency. Unlike our current insult-driven culture, Archbishop Sheen was a model of civility, and never allowed his passion for truth to disparage anyone’s human dignity, even those he strongly disagreed with. However lost some people were, he knew they were still beloved children of God, capable of grace-filled redemption. In addition, just as he combatted anti-Catholicism, Sheen was an outspoken opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, knowing that all forms of bigotry fatally undermined an authentic Christian witness.
Second, in contrast to today’s ever “evolving” theology – which is entirely different from a genuine development of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the Church’s Sacred Deposit of Faith – Sheen was always clear, consistent and trustworthy when presenting Catholic teaching. No faithful Catholic who followed him ever feared Sheen would suddenly “grow” into a fashionable, heterodox preacher.
Third, unlike the new wave of Catholic evangelists, who are determined to accentuate only the “beautiful” aspects of Catholicism – as if some parts are shameful and need to be censored – Sheen never shied away from addressing controversial issues – whether it was sexual sin, marital problems, harmful influences on children, social injustice, crime, mental illness, civil rights, inexplicable suffering, or war and peace. For Sheen knew that however “dark” and daunting the problem, Christianity could always shine its healing light on it.
The archbishop was also keenly aware of Cardinal Newman’s warnings against “the religion of the day”, which manifested itself by always being bright and sunny and sappy – never addressing sin, the Devil, God’s judgment or the overriding importance of protecting souls from eternal damnation.
Fourth, Sheen understood genuine Christian mercy like few do today. He knew the modern age was drowning in counterfeit mercy, confusing Christian mercy (which aims to purify and reform) with permission to commit grave sins. Consequently, late in life, he delivered one of his greatest sermons, “False Compassion” (thankfully preserved on YouTube), which is like a heat-seeking missile of truth exposing one of the biggest errors of our time.
Sheen was Christ-centred, not man-centred, and thus provides a powerful antidote to those who would place man’s desires above God’s. His teaching applies especially to those who constantly fret about being on “the right side of history” – often abandoning orthodoxy in the process. Sheen, in contrast, knew that history does not judge Divine Revelation; Revelation judges history, and there is only one direction history is moving toward: Christ’s ultimate victory.
Above all, and as much as Sheen wanted Catholics to become responsible citizens, he wanted them, even more, to become holy – and he practised what he preached, setting aside an hour every day, no matter where he was, or what he was doing, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. He also donated the vast bulk of his enormous earnings to the Church and its charities.
At a time when the Church is under attack, and when internal strife continues to rock it, the soon-to-be Blessed Fulton Sheen is someone all sincere Catholics can justly celebrate, and look to as a source of inspiration, as they arduously pursue the kingdom of God in this world – and, we hope, find it in the next.
William Doino Jr is a writer on religion, history and politics and a contributor to First Things and Inside the Vatican
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