Those who love the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen and who hope to see him canonised one day will easily recognise him in the affectionate portrait of him drawn by his niece. My Uncle Fulton Sheen by Joan Sheen Cunningham (Gracewing £12.99) describes how, as a ten-year-old girl from the family of Sheen’s second brother, she came to attend the Holy Child Convent in New York at the invitation of her uncle. Although she boarded with family friends who had a girl her own age, she often spent weekends in Sheen’s company, visiting churches, waiting while he went to weekly Confession, attending the Masses he celebrated, meeting his friends and enjoying treats of ic- cream..
Now in her 90s (she was born in 1927), the author has collaborated with writer Janel Rodriguez, who has filled in these reminiscences with background details of Fulton Sheen’s life: his childhood, ordination, academic studies and his growing public fame as a broadcaster. Sheen’s brother’s family – Joan was one of eight children – was like a surrogate family for him; he loved children, having fun with them and playing childish games. Yet his warm human qualities did not detract from the respect Joan was taught to have for him; she never called him “Uncle”, only “Father”, not because he wanted to stand on ceremony but because of his sense of the dignity of his calling.
As she relates, although he grew up on a farm and was expected to do his share of the chores, Sheen really wanted to read books and could not remember a time when he did not long to be a priest. Encouraged by his devout Catholic parents, he excelled at his studies and discovered a natural gift for preaching and for translating complex theological ideas into ordinary language that people could understand. Invited to broadcast on The Catholic Hour on the radio, his listeners grew to four million for a radio slot that, projected to last only a few weeks, ran for 20 years.
Joan had no idea of her uncle’s growing fame from these broadcasts. When she witnessed many people come up and shake his hand during their walks together, she simply concluded he was very popular and had many friends. She relates that although his weekly TV show, Life is Worth Living, was what gave him enduring fame, she thinks that it was as Director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith “that my uncle really found his calling.” Always very generous, he donated his considerable salary to the missions and raised millions more for the Society from appeals on his TV show and the donations that flowed in from them. His zeal for spreading the Faith was paramount; “His love for the missions was different from his enthusiasm for anything else”, Joan comments.
Living in an age when the reputation of the priesthood has sadly been tainted by scandals, this memoir takes the reader back to a time when a zealous and holy priest could have a real and innocent friendship with a child, a friendship in which Sheen taught his niece by his example rather than by words. “He was like a second father to me”, Joan relates.
As for Fulton Sheen himself, he was convinced that a priest had to beget spiritual children. “Woe to those who are barren!” he once wrote, “When the Lord comes looking for the fruit of our fatherhood, we must not be as the barren fig tree, which merits only a curse.”
Picture: Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is pictured with his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, to his right in a pink dress (CNS)