News Analysis

Why Pope Francis swiftly approved Fulton Sheen’s beatification

Archbishop Sheen on the set of his television series Life is Worth Living (Getty)

The big news from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints this past week was, of course, that Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Venerable Fulton Sheen, clearing the way for his beatification.

Francis has beatified almost as many people in his six years in charge of the See of Peter as Pope St John Paul II did over the whole of his 26-year reign. In fairness, Francis did cover more than 500 of them with one stroke of the pen, when he approved the beatification, in 2013, of 522 Spanish Civil War martyrs. Still, he has kept up a brisk pace, and has declared an eclectic assortment of new Blesseds.

The Sheen announcement came just days after the Venerable’s body was moved to Peoria, Illinois, thus ending a protracted and unseemly legal battle with the Archdiocese of New York that had at one point led to an indefinite hold on the Cause, even though a stillborn baby had inexplicably returned to life, apparently after the child’s parents petitioned Archbishop Sheen for intercession.

Known as a great apologist, and universally recognised as a pioneer of what we now call the “new evangelisation”, Sheen was a radio host during the Golden Age of Radio before he moved to television and an 18-year, Emmy Award-winning career on the DuMont network and later in syndication. He was also a highly trained and disciplined thinker who did serious work in philosophy and won academic accolades early in his life. He held a professorship at the Catholic University of America for more than two decades, starting in the 1920s.

A superficial and cursory view of Sheen might suggest he was not the sort of character Pope Francis would choose to elevate as an example to the faithful or to the world’s bishops. Sheen was an inveterate traveller, a celebrity who rubbed elbows with the literati and glitterati, and he was always impeccably attired, coiffed and accoutred. He was a man of impressive erudition and genuine intellectual brilliance who took great care to use precise language. One might call him a rigorous doctrinal hard-liner.

He was also an austere fellow, disciplined in his appetites to the point of asceticism. He earned millions, but kept only enough to support himself and his work. The New York Times described him in his obituary in the following terms: “He neither smoked nor drank; he took no holidays; he was indifferent to food and amusements; he gave away nearly all his earnings.”

He was the director of a mission society – the Society for the Propagation of the Faith – which he led for eight years before becoming Bishop of Rochester. There, he encountered significant opposition – successful resistance, in fact – over his plan to donate a Church building to a federal public housing project.

Whatever else one might say about Sheen’s short time in Rochester, he put some of Francis’s favourite advice to young people – ¡Hagan lío! (“Make a mess!”) – into practice.

Sheen also practised silence, and even praised powerful men for the good they had done, even after they did him down.

According to James M Patterson’s recent book, Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, when Sheen was an auxiliary under Cardinal Francis Spellman and already involved with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the archdiocese came into some surplus government aid supplies – powdered milk, according to some reports – which New York gave to the mission society, and then tried to charge the society for the goods. Sheen refused to pay.

The matter went all the way to Pius XII, who sided with Sheen. Spellman reportedly vowed revenge, and spent the better part of the next decade doing his best to make life difficult for Sheen, who never breathed a public word against his erstwhile superior.

Who gets the nod from the Pope in regard to saints’ Causes depends at least as much on when the local Church responsible for promoting a Cause gets its ducks in a row, and on how quickly the gears of the saint-making machine in the Roman Curia are able to grind, as it does on any individual pope’s personal predilections for a given figure.

If one were to ask what the model of a Francis bishop – or a Francis Blessed – might look like, one could do worse than the soon-to-be-Blessed Fulton Sheen.

On the same day as Sheen’s Cause advanced, Francis inscribed the Portuguese Blessed Bartholomew of the Martyrs in the books of saints via a process known as “equipollent canonisation”. That’s when a pope simply decides to recognise that a person – usually, though not always or necessarily, a Blessed – is worthy of universal esteem, and so puts them on the universal calendar. That’s also how Pope Francis canonised one of his favourite Jesuits, Peter Faber, in 2013. As one long-time Roman fixture and wag put it: “It was a birthday present to himself.”