The Virtually Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

CHARLES F. HARVEY

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.


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. Sheen.

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 paved.

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 life."

Athanasius Redux

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 feather-weight, 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.

Prodigious author

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.

Consummate Churchman

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 century America.

Humble priest

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 he aspired.

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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Charles F. Harvey. "The Virtually Venerable Fulton J. Sheen." Catholic Dossier 7 no. 5 (July-August 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Charles F. Harvey is managing editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2001 Catholic Dossier


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