The Virtually Venerable Fulton J. Sheen | Charles F. Harvey | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Virtually Venerable Fulton J. Sheen | Charles F. Harvey
Has Archbishop Fulton Sheen been declared an American
saint? Not exactly. In fact, not at all. At least not yet. Only now is the
process of opening his cause for canonization begun. It would be presumptuous,
then, to declare Sheen a saint-in-the-making. We aren't in a position to
anticipate the Church's judgment and even though not everyone who is a saint by
virtue of making it to heaven is declared a saint by the Church, we can't
settle the question of "who's in" and "who's not" by our own lights. But we can
say that Sheen certainly embodied two qualities that characterized many
canonized American saints: zeal for personal sanctity and a drive to realize
the unique possibilities for spreading the Gospel that America affords. -- Mark Brumley
On May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Illinois, a son born to Newton
and Delia Sheen was given the name Peter. Yet, when it came time to enroll him
in parochial school and his maternal grandfather (whose last name was Fulton)
was asked the boy's name, he replied: "It's Fulton." The Confirmation name
"John" completed the name that would become world-famous as one of the most
vibrant spokesmen for the Church since the Protestant Reformation: Fulton J.
Archbishop Sheen notes in his autobiography, Treasure in
Clay, that in Gaelic "Fulton" means "war"
and "Sheen" means "peace." It is as though his very name foretold the kind of
life he was to have: an uninterrupted warring against the powers of darkness to
promote the peace of Christ's kingdom.
After high school, while attending St. Viator's College, the
young Sheen took part in a national examination and won a scholarship entitling
him to three years of university training with all expenses paid. His close
friend, Fr. William J. Bergan, counseled him not to accept the prize, but,
instead, to enter the seminary. He took his friend's advice, and after
completing theological studies at St. Viator's and at St. Paul's Seminary in
Minnesota, he was ordained to the priesthood on September 20, 1919.
Since he had excelled in his studies for the priesthood, he
was selected to attend the Catholic University of America for advanced academic
work. It was there that he earned his S.T.L. and J.C.B.
In September of 1921--just two years after ordination--he was
off to the University of Louvain in Belgium where he took his Ph.D. in 1923.
Offers of teaching positions at Columbia and at Oxford were declined in
obedience to his bishop. Instead of a prestigious academic post, he would be an
assistant pastor assigned to a parish where the streets had not even yet been
Academic offers continued (an invitation to organize and
head the philosophy department at the seminary in Detroit was especially
attractive), but Sheen dedicated himself to the task at hand, immersing himself
in the work of the parish.
Then, late in the summer of 1926, his bishop told him that
he was to join the faculty at Catholic University. He remained on the faculty
there for the next twenty-five years. So popular were his lectures that
sometimes extra seats were brought in to accommodate the overflow.
Two years after his appointment to Catholic University, he
began a parallel career: a long-time media presence as a Catholic spokesman and
apologist on radio and, later, on television. After anchoring a series of
religious broadcasts on radio, he was selected to host The Catholic Hour on NBC
radio until he moved to TV. In 1952, Bishop Sheen (he had been named auxiliary
bishop in New York under Cardinal Spellman in 1951) starred in the first
religious television show in New York: Life Is Worth Living. That program (with
his trademark "God love you") brought him instant recognition by the American
TV-viewing public in the early-to-mid 1950s.
By 1954, his ratings were competitive with those of Mr.
Television himself, Milton Berle. His popularity increasing, Sheen moved to ABC
for a national hook-up. By 1956, his show was being broadcast on one-hundred
eighty-seven stations in the U. S. and Canada. He said, "Little did I know in
those days that it would be given to me through radio and television to address
a greater audience in half an hour than Paul in all the years of his missionary
If God raised up the great bishop Athanasius to fight
Arianism in the fourth century, perhaps it is not too far afield to think that
he raised up the great bishop Sheen to combat Communism in the twentieth. Sheen
stressed the need for reason in dealing with Communism, which had continued to
gain appeal in America since the 1920s. His prophetic program on Stalin's
death, which was broadcast live a week before the Soviet ruler died, cemented
Sheen's position as America's top Catholic anti-Communist. Some high-level
party members called him "Public Enemy No. 1."
Contrary to some, Sheen was no intellectual featherweight,
and he brought his formidable powers of intellection to bear on the problem of
Communism, the better to refute it. He absorbed Marx, Lenin, and Stalin to
prepare himself for the assaults he would sustain in his attack on their
theories. He was a tremendous success. He converted or influenced a number of
Communists and leftists in the heyday of American Communism, including Louis
Budenz, Elizabeth T. Bently, Bella Dodd, and Heywood Broun.
One incident related in his autobiography is worth
recounting here, revealing as it does the intensity of pro-Communist sentiment
in America during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. According to Bishop Sheen's
own account, "The foreign policy of the United States was considering lifting
[sic] the embargo against sending arms to the Communists in Spain. In order to
combat this movement, a meeting was held in Constitution Hall, Washington. The
speakers were three: a former Spanish Ambassador, a young woman who had been in
Spain and had fought against the Communists, and myself. Thousands were turned
away from Constitution Hall. It is very likely that the meeting had something
to do with breaking down the movement to send arms to the Communists."
Sheen used that episode to lead into an anecdote that
reveals to us something about President Franklin Roosevelt that his apologists
would prefer remain unspoken. Bishop Sheen recalled that the day after the
meeting in Constitution Hall, he had a meeting with FDR. He went to ask for a
political favor for an old friend who had lost his re-election bid to Congress.
During the meeting, FDR took Sheen to task for something that he mistakenly
thought the bishop had said at the Constitution Hall meeting. Sheen tried to
disprove Roosevelt's allegation, but the President would not permit him to
follow through. Next Roosevelt said: "You think you know a great deal about the
Church's attitude toward Communism, don't you? I want to tell you that I am in
touch with a great authority, and he tells me that the Church wants the
Communists to win in Spain." Sheen answered: "Mr. President, I am not the least
bit impressed with your authority." FDR: "I did not tell you who it was." The
bishop checkmated Roosevelt with: "You are referring to Cardinal Mundelein, and
I know that Cardinal Mundelein never made the statement you attributed to him."
Roosevelt had stuck his foot in his mouth; but Bishop Sheen
wanted to conduct the business he came for in the first place. He said: "Mr.
President, I came to see you about a position in Housing." FDR said: "Oh, Eddie
voted for everything I wanted in Congress. He wants to be in Housing, does he
not?" Sheen said that was correct. Roosevelt made a note on a pad and
continued: "The moment you leave this office I will call Mrs. So-and-So [he
mentioned the name of the woman who was in charge of Housing] and you call
Eddie and tell him he has the job." When Sheen left the White House he called
Eddie and said: "Eddie, I saw the President. I am sorry, you do not get the
job." Eddie said: ""Is that what the President said after all I did for
him?" Sheen said: "No, he said you would have it." Eddie never got the job.
Needless to say, Bishop Sheen was a shrewd observer of the human heart.
Sheen also told a story that reveals the depth of pro-Soviet
sympathy in America during his radio days. He said that because of his position
on the USSR, his talks were closely monitored. If he "veered from the
then-popular position of Russia being a democracy," a technician in the studio
would cut him off. Once he submitted a manuscript for an upcoming broadcast
that had the line, "Poland was crucified between two thieves--the Nazis and the
Soviets." Sheen got a telegram from the Bishops' Conference asking him not to
say that, because one of the thieves was, of course, the USSR. Never one to
miss a beat, the bishop answered the telegram with: "How would it be to call
Russia the 'good' thief?"
20th Century Missionary Giant
In 1950, Bishop Sheen was tapped to head the national office
of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He founded a magazine named Mission and published God Loves You,
a weekly column in Catholic newspapers. Between
1950 and 1966, he irrigated the fields of the foreign missions with $200
million (a tremendous sum these days; how much more so then!).
In Treasure in Clay,
Archbishop Sheen recounts some of his dealings with the foreign missions. For
example, he tells the story of a missionary priest in Australia who labored in
the desert there. The heat averaged 125 degrees, and the only kind of food he
could carry was canned peaches, since everything else exploded in the desert
heat. His "rectory" was his Volkswagen, which was eventually swept
away in a flood. Bishop Sheen wrote him a check for a new VW. In his capacity
as national head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, his decisions
benefited the mission efforts in New Guinea, Borneo, Pacific Islands, China,
Africa, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, and countless other locales.
Archbishop Sheen, known primarily for his oratorical skills,
was, nonetheless, a superb prose stylist. (He wrote more than sixty books!) And
he gave full exercise to both of these talents in defending and promoting the
Church. His many works include such gems as God and Intelligence in Modern
Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Preface to Religion, Three to Get Married,
The Divine Romance, Peace of Soul, Life Is Worth Living, The Seven Last Words,
The Way of the Cross, This Is the Mass, The Power of Love, The Divine Verdict,
The Armor of God, Way To Inner Peace, God Loves You, Thinking Life Through, and Thoughts For Daily Living.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Rochester, New
York, where he served for four years before stepping down at age seventy-four.
He was named titular Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport (Wales) in 1969.
His quicksilver wit and golden smile softened the patrician
bearing that would quickly stiffen in defense of Christ's Church and the honor
of His Bride. And he had a marvelous sense of humor: Pope Paul VI once
reportedly told him that he would have a high place in heaven. "Is that an
infallible statement?" he grinned.
His high-caliber intellect (steeped as it was in the wisdom
of St. Thomas Aquinas), the magnitude of his writing and speaking skills, his
shrewd sense of theater, and his unflagging love for Christ's Church combined
to produce the most colorful and effective Catholic apologist in twentieth
By his own account, each day of his priestly life included a
continuous hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. This daily prayer and
mediation and his deep devotion to the Blessed Mother formed the spine of his
fidelity to his priestly vocation and the foundation for the holiness to which
Some two months before his death, he met the visiting John
Paul II, who embraced him warmly and told him: "You have written and spoken
well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church." Archbishop Sheen
died in New York City on December 9, 1979.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2001
issue of Catholic Dossier magazine.
Archbishop Sheen books and videos available through Ignatius Press:
Treasure in Clay
Life Is Worth Living
The Priest Is Not His Own
The World's First Love
Through the Year with Fulton Sheen
Fulton Sheen: Good Friday (VHS)
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: His Irish Wit and Wisdom (VHS)
Fulton Sheen: His Last Words (VHS)
Bishop Sheen on Angels (VHS)
Sheen Gems (VHS)
Retreat with Fulton Sheen (DVD)
Fulton Sheen Mission Rosary (CD)
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: A Prophet for Our Time (VHS)
Fulton Sheen: His Last Words (DVD)
Charles F. Harvey worked at Ignatius Press from 1998 until
his death in February 2003. He became the full-time managing editor of
Homiletic & Pastoral Review in 2001. He had previously worked for Catholic
Answers, the San Diego diocesan Office of Social Ministry, and St. Joseph
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