Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Peter Coldham has written a very interesting piece on Archbishop Fulton Sheen – all about the man and the recommendation for his canonisation put forward by his American diocese.


Those who so much enjoyed watching the CaFe programmes last autumn which featured Archbishop Fulton Sheen presenting his lively exposition of Catholic belief, will wish to know that he has now been officially put forward by his American diocese with a recommendation for his canonisation.

The following is an abstract from the Catholic Herald article which appeared in the issue of 8th February this year

The first phase of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonisation was completed last week as Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria nailed shut the wooden box containing the late archbishop’s writings and testimonials and sent them to the Vatican. . . . The faithful, including one hundred members of the Sheen family, crowded round the crate containing 6,500 pieces of information relating to the Archbishop’s life.

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1895, Peter John Sheen was ordained at the age of 24 and so fresh-faced that when he arrived as a substitute priest he was told: “Get over to the church, the other altar boys are dressed already.” He became a public figure in the 1930s thanks to his America-wide radio show The Catholic Hour and, after the second world war, his television programme Life is Worth Living regularly reached a weekly audience of 30 million people. When he won an Emmy award in 1952 he said: “I feel it is time I paid tribute to my four writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

He was made Auxiliary Bishop of New York in 1961 and in 1969, fifty years after his ordination, he was appointed as titular Archbishop of Newport, Wales. He died in 1979, two months after Pope John Paul had embraced him at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York with the words: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ: you are a loyal son of the Church.”

A more detailed appraisal of Fulton Sheen’s life and work has been written by Thomas Reeves, the author of several books including the definitive biography from which the following is taken.

“Many Catholics have a clearer understanding of Sheen, for more than a dozen of his books remain in print, several anthologies of his writings are for sale, and his television shows and tapes continue to be popular. The Eternal Word Television Network regularly features Sheen videotapes. Moreover, an effort is underway, formally inaugurated by the late Cardinal O’Connor of New York, to have the Archbishop canonized.

In preparing [his biography] I discovered a brilliant, charismatic, and holy man who has been underestimated by historians, largely overlooked by the contemporary mass media, and forgotten by too many Catholics. Indeed, I came to the conclusion that Fulton J. Sheen was the most important Catholic of twentieth century America. His father was a modestly prosperous farmer, his mother a hard-working and popular farm wife and mother of four boys. The Sheen children were gifted with high intelligence and for most of his life Fulton would work a nineteen hour day, seven days a week. Fulton excelled in his school work from the start, and was an extremely popular youngster. Rather short (five foot seven) and slim, he was unable to compete effectively in athletics and so poured his energy into becoming a skilled debater. His beautiful speaking voice, penetrating eyes, pleasing personality, and outstanding academic preparation proved effective in competitions. From his earliest years, there seemed to be a consensus of opinion in the family that he would become a priest and he was ordained in 1917.
After a brief and successful stint in a slum church in Peoria (a test given by his bishop to see if he would be obedient), Sheen became an instructor at Catholic University. He was teaching philosophy and theology from 1926 until 1950. While proving to be a popular professor, Sheen’s interests were primarily off-campus. After writing two scholarly books, he began publishing a lengthy list of more or less popular books and articles that would earn him honours and praise throughout the country. In 1928, he went on The Catholic Hour, a nationally broadcast radio program. He quickly became the program’s most popular preacher and for more than two decades was asked to preach during Lent and at Holy Days.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, one of the most powerful figures in the Church, took Sheen under his wing after World War II, and in 1948 invited him to join a world-wide tour and assume the bulk of the journey’s preaching duties. The two men greatly appreciated each other’s talents and in 1950 Spellman arranged for him to head the American branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Church’s principal source of missionary funds. The appointment came with a mitre, and in 1951, he was consecrated in Rome. He flung himself into his new duties, revealing his great skill as a fund-raiser. He continued to produce books, articles, and newspaper columns at an astonishing rate, and accepted invitations to preach throughout the country and across the world. Sheen’s personal success at winning converts attracted national attention. Unmentioned in the press were the thousands of average Americans who came into the Church because of Sheen’s efforts.

When, in 1951, the Archdiocese of New York decided to enter the world of television, Sheen was a natural choice to appear on screen. The initial half-hour lectures were broadcast on the tiny Dumont Network, opposite big budget programs by comedian Milton Berle, known as “Mr. Television,” and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. No one gave Sheen a chance to compete effectively. Soon, however, he took the country by storm, winning an Emmy, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and entering the “most admired” list of Americans. In its second year, Life Is Worth Living moved to the ABC Network and had a sponsor, the Admiral Corporation.

Sheen’s talks, delivered in the full regalia of a bishop, were masterful. He worked on each presentation for 35 hours, delivering it in Italian and French to clarify his thoughts before going on television. He at no time used notes or cue cards, and always ended on time. The set was a study with a desk, a few chairs, and some books; the only prop was a blackboard and a four-foot statue of Madonna and Child on a pedestal was clearly visible. Sheen’s humour, charm, intelligence, and considerable acting skill radiated throughout the Live Is Worth Living series, captivating millions eager to hear Christian (only indirectly Catholic) answers to life’s common problems.

For all of his concerns about worldly issues, Sheen was above all someone who fervently believed that God is love, that miracles happen, and that the Catholic Church best taught the divinely revealed truths about life and death. Still, he was not a plaster saint. Vanity was a constant problem for him, and he knew it. He lived and dressed well and enjoyed the publicity he received in the media and the applause of adoring crowds. Perhaps more serious was an offence that was not discovered until twenty years after his death: while a young teacher at Catholic University, in order to expedite his academic career, he invented a second doctorate for himself. Sheen could also be difficult at times when his authority was challenged. In the early 1950s, he and Cardinal Spellman, a very proud man, engaged in a bitter feud largely over the dispersal of Society funds. The struggle led to a private audience before Pius XII, who sided with Sheen. In a rage, Spellman terminated Sheen’s television series, made him a local outcast, and drove him from the Archdiocese. In 1966, Sheen became the Bishop of Rochester, U.S.A. He was an active participant in the Vatican II sessions in Rome and thoroughly endorsed the reforms that followed. During the last decade of his life, while battling serious heart disease, he continued at a breathtaking pace to travel, speak, and write. During the course of his more than 50-year career in the Church, he wrote 66 books and countless articles. No other Catholic figure of the century could match his literary productivity. In October 1979 when he met John Paul II in the sanctuary of St. Patrick’s Cathedral thunderous applause greeted their embrace. The Pope told the 84-year-old Archbishop that he had been a loyal son of the Church. Nothing could have been more pleasing than to hear this from the Pope himself before he died on 9 December 1970 in his chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.”

The very engaging talks by Fulton Sheen which we had the privilege of hearing in the parish last year should form a fitting curtain-raiser to the next series of Ca Fe programmes starting on Thursday 1st May which will feature many internationally known contributors such as Delia Smith (of cookery fame), Cardinal Arinze, Archbishop Coleridge (presenter of a previous series of Ca Fe talks), Nicky Gumbell of Alpha fame, and Lord Alton. Diary bookings to be made now!