Growing up in northern Illinois, the name of Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a popular one…
Celebrating the life and legacy of Archbishop Fulton Sheen
It’s a big year for Archbishop Fulton Sheen and all who love him. It all began in June with the long-awaited transfer of his remains from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to Peoria’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. In July, an alleged miracle attributed to his intercession was approved by the pope, clearing the way for his beatification, which is expected sometime in 2020.
|Brief guide to the Sheen-related sites in and around Peoria|
This December will mark the 40th anniversary of his death. This month marks the centennial of Sheen’s ordination to the priesthood — Sept. 20 — and next May will mark the 125th anniversary of his birth. In celebration of these milestones, Our Sunday Visitor offers a brief synopsis of the life of this popular televangelist and his mark on the world today.
Fulton J. Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, on May 8, 1895, and raised in nearby Peoria. Sheen commuted into town from the family farm to attend St. Mary’s Cathedral parish school and then went to high school at the diocesan Spalding Institute a few blocks away. He then attended St. Viator’s College near Kankakee, Illinois, where he excelled academically and graduated as valedictorian of his class. Sheen recalled in his autobiography that there was never a time that he could recall not wanting to be a priest. Before his ordination to the priesthood on Sept. 20, 1919, in Peoria, Sheen attended seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Sheen was academically inclined from an early age. After ordination to the priesthood, he was assigned to further studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He would eventually return there and make a mark as one of the university’s most sought-after professors, after he completed two doctorates in philosophy and theology at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.
Sheen loved teaching and was wholly dedicated to his students. He found great satisfaction and purpose in helping his students know and love the truth. To be effective, he spent untold hours preparing for each lecture, making each his own by rewriting preparation notes to the point of memorization. He refused to teach with any notes at hand. It was a great sacrifice for Sheen to leave the scholarly life when he was appointed as director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith in 1950, which necessitated a move to New York City.
Sheen is remembered as one of the most prolific American Catholic writers. While more than half of his books were written while he was on the faculty of The Catholic University of America, he continued to write a good deal after his 1951 appointment as auxiliary bishop of New York. With nearly 70 books, Sheen remains one of the most popular Catholic authors, even 40 years after his death. Among his most popular is his own posthumously published autobiography “Treasure in Clay.” Some other Sheen classics are: “Life is Worth Living,” “Life of Christ,” “The World’s First Love,” “Three To Get Married” and “Go to Heaven.”
While teaching in Washington, D.C., Sheen hosted the national broadcast “The Catholic Hour” each Sunday for two decades. Earning the nickname “God’s Microphone,” Sheen quickly became a household name. He was outspoken on controversial issues, especially communism. And he explained the Faith attractively with eloquence and ease.
Shortly after his move to New York City in 1950, Sheen became involved in television, and for that he is most widely known. Each Tuesday evening, Americans tuned in to Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” program. He was a hit with a wide-ranging audience, reaching close to 30 million viewers each week during its run from 1952-57. It was bold and innovative. As one of the first televangelists, Sheen brought his viewers closer to God through reflections on the meaning of life — with characteristic wit and candor as well as his trademark cape and blackboard.
Part of his success was his ability to speak convincingly and from the heart. Similar to his years in the classroom, Sheen used no notes for his television show. Remarkably, he spent an hour in preparation for each of his 30 minutes on the air. To help him, he would deliver scripts in Italian and French before taping to garner a command of the material. After his first year on the air, Sheen won an Emmy award for best TV personality. Upon acceptance, he famously thanked his writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. His shows are still widely viewed on the internet or on networks such as EWTN.
There is no doubt that, in addition to private lessons he conducted for hundreds of Catholic converts, his media efforts brought about more conversions to the Catholic faith than any other individual in America. Once asked by Pope Pius XII how many converts he assisted, Sheen replied, “I am always afraid if I did count them, I might think I made them, instead of the Lord.”
|Prairie State Saints|
Fulton Sheen’s canonization cause was overseen by the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, the diocese where he was born, grew up and for whose service he was ordained a priest.
Illinois is somewhat familiar with candidates for sainthood. In fact, America’s first canonized saint, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, died in Chicago just over a century ago. And aside from Sheen’s, there are three other active canonization causes for Illinoisans who have reached the status of venerable servants of God: Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first identifiably African-American priest; Venerable Mother Theresa Dudzik, foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago; and Venerable Mother Maria Kaupas, foundress of the Sisters of St. Casimir.
Pope St. Paul VI appointed Sheen as bishop of Rochester, New York, in 1966, at the behest of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman. His tenure there was short lived and, despite his best efforts, marked by a good portion of self-admitted failure. Nonetheless, he threw himself into the work. Having participated at the Second Vatican Council, Sheen recognized the importance of implementing its achievements, including reforms in the training of future priests and bringing about greater lay participation in the life of the Church. Attentive to the times, his priorities often were rooted in a social consciousness. He worked to bring greater awareness to the needs of the poor, advance better race relations, and took a stand for peace by calling for an end to the Vietnam War.
Humility and suffering
Sheen’s fame brought him as many temptations and difficulties as special privileges and honors. Those who knew him best have explained that Sheen took accolades in stride, did not demand special treatment and was not consumed by a desire for the fine living that was associated with his office, particularly for the time.
An often hidden aspect of Sheen’s life, despite the many comforts that he knew, came a great deal of suffering on account of his righteousness — even within the Church. A good deal of this stemmed from a decadelong fallout with New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, Sheen’s archbishop. Not all of the details are known, but it was clear Sheen suffered a great deal from behind-the-scenes quarrels with Spellman. Many have indicated that Spellman was responsible for the end of Sheen’s popular television show as well as Sheen’s “exile” to Rochester, where he was appointed diocesan bishop in 1966. Given his talents and reputation, many expected Sheen to become a cardinal and likely succeed Spellman as archbishop of New York.
Sheen never spoke much about it and even praised Spellman at times in his own autobiography. But some light is shed on the situation when, after his retirement, Sheen was asked why he did not move up higher in the Church’s hierarchy. He said: “I refused to pay the price. … I felt it would be disloyalty to my own principles, and I think to Christian practice.”
Sheen’s travails were met by patient suffering and preference in virtue. He knew his suffering only made sense in the light of God’s providence: “Christianity begins not with sunshine, but with defeat. During those days when my life was backed up against the Cross, I began to know and to love it more.”
Not long before he died, Sheen noted the sufferings in his life, but also acknowledged their benefit. “There has been physical suffering. And other kinds … but as I look back over the years, I have never received the punishment I deserved. God has been easy with me. He has never laid on me burdens equal to my faith,” he said.
During his time in seminary, Sheen took up the practice of a daily Holy Hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. On his ordination day he resolved to keep up the practice as a priest. And he continued all during his over 60 years as a priest, even dying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the private chapel of his residence on Dec. 9, 1979.
The practice brought him into a variety of circumstances, some difficult and some even comical, many episodes of which are recorded in his autobiography. Once, Sheen was forced into jumping out of a window after the pastor of a Chicago church accidentally locked him in.
In his autobiography “Treasure in Clay,” Sheen called the daily Holy Hour “the hour that makes my day” and gave three reasons for why he made the practice a priority and believed others should as well:
First, the Holy Hour is not a devotion; it is a sharing in the work of redemption. Our Blessed Lord used the words “hour” and “day” in two totally different connotations in the Gospel of John. “Day” belongs to God; the “hour” belongs to evil. Seven times in the Gospel of John, the word “hour” is used, and in each instance it refers to the demonic and the moments when Christ is no longer in the Father’s Hands, but in the hands of men. In the Garden, our Lord contrasted two “hours” — one was the evil hour “this is your hour” — with which Judas could turn out the lights of the world. In contrast, our Lord asked: “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Mt 26:40). In other words, he asked for an hour of reparation to combat the hour of evil; an hour of victimal union with the Cross to overcome the anti-love of sin.
Second, the only time Our Lord asked the apostles for anything was the night he went into his agony. Then he did not ask all of them, perhaps because he knew he could not count on their fidelity. But at least he expected three to be faithful to him: Peter, James and John. As often in the history of the Church, evil was awake, but the disciples were asleep. That is why there came out of his anguished and lonely heart the sigh, asking why they could not stay awake for one hour. Not for an hour of activity did he plead, but for an hour of companionship.
The third reason we should keep up the Holy Hour is to grow more and more into his likeness. As Paul puts it: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). We become like that which we gaze upon. Looking into a sunset, the face takes on a golden glow. Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain. Something similar happens to us to that which happened to the disciples at Emmaus. On Easter Sunday afternoon when the Lord met them, he asked why they were so gloomy. After spending some time in his presence, and hearing again the secret of spirituality — “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” — their time with him ended and their hearts were burning within them (cf. Lk 24:26, 32).
|61 Minutes to a Miracle|
“Believe the incredible, and you can do the impossible.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s words ring true in the miraculous story attributed to his intercession: James Fulton Engstrom, who was born stillborn, is now a healthy boy of 8-years-old thanks to the prayers to his namesake. Read the full story of the miracle that will lead to Sheen’s beatification in the new release: “61 Minutes to a Miracle: Fulton Sheen and a True Story of the Impossible” (OSV, $13.95).
Cause and miracle
The cause for the canonization of Fulton J. Sheen was formally opened in Peoria in 2002. After a decade of collecting all the documentation about his life and work for study by the Holy See, Sheen was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Sheen’s cause was suspended in 2014 when a dispute arose over the location of Sheen’s body. Nearly five years of litigation ensued between Sheen’s niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, and the Archdiocese of New York. Cunningham desired that her uncle’s remains be relocated to Peoria, while the Archdiocese of New York maintained it was Sheen’s wish to be buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Throughout the process the Holy See maintained neutrality.
Sheen’s cause was reopened once his body was moved to Peoria on June 27, 2019, following repeated legal victories in favor of Cunningham’s petition.
Sheen’s beatification comes after formal investigation and approval of a miracle attributed to his intercession, which affected newborn James Fulton Engstrom, who spent the first 61 minutes of his life breathless, without a pulse. Having turned to Sheen for support throughout her pregnancy, the boy’s mother, Bonnie, prayed for the archbishop’s assistance. And just as he was about to be declared dead, her son’s heart rate sprang to a normal rate. Today, he’s a healthy, thriving 8-year-old. The miracle was approved by Pope Francis on July 5, 2019, and signals that his beatification likely will take place in the coming year.
Michael Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.