Remembering Fulton Sheen

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was revered by millions of Americans because of his great gifts in preaching and writing about the truths of the Catholic faith – and about the great heresies of the twentieth century.

Fulton John Sheen was born over his father’s hardware store in El Paso, Illinois, on May 8, 1895. An outstanding student, Sheen attended St. Victor’s College in Bourbonnais, Illinois, and later, realizing he had a religious vocation, entered Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota.

Ordained a priest on September 25, 1919, he was not assigned a parish, but was sent to The Catholic University of America for graduate studies. Upon earning his Master of Arts degree, he traveled to Europe for additional education. After earning a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Louvain and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome, Sheen was offered teaching positions at Oxford and at Columbia University. Sheen sent a letter to his bishop asking, “Which offer should I accept?” The answer was, “Come home.”

In the summer of 1926, Father Sheen was summoned to the bishop’s office, who informed him, “Three years ago I promised you to Bishop Shahan of The Catholic University as a member of the faculty.” Sheen asked, “Why did you not let me go there when I returned from Europe?” “Because of the success you had on the other side, I just wanted to see if you would be obedient. So run along now, you have my blessing.”

Sheen was to teach for twenty-five years. During this period, his reputation as a preacher and Catholic apologist grew, and invitations to speak and preach throughout the nation poured in. In 1930 the American bishops invited him to represent the Church on NBC’s nationally broadcast show “The Catholic Hour,” and he appeared on that show until 1951, when he switched from radio to television.

Many believed Sheen had the ability to become the greatest Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. His duties at The Catholic University, however, became minimal; he eventually taught only one graduate course a year. The chairman of the philosophy department, Father Ignatius Smith, explained, “I was often criticized for not giving him more work, but I felt he was doing more good on the outside.”

Sheen accomplished much on the outside. He produced at least one book a year, wrote two weekly newspaper columns, became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and edited two magazines. Also, he was instrumental in numerous conversions, including Clare Booth Luce, Henry Ford II, Communists Louis Budenz and Elizabeth Bentley, and violinist Fritz Kreisler.

Sheen had the rare ability to take complex philosophical and theological concepts and translate them into language the person on the street could understand. Witness this from 1933:

Never before in the history of the world was there so much knowledge; and never before so little coming to the knowledge of the Truth. Never before so much straining for life; never before so many unhappy lives. Never before so much science; never before was it used so for the destruction of human life.
Or this from 1944:

In religious matters, the modern world believes in indifference. Very simply, this means it has no great loves and no great hates; no causes worth living for and no causes worth dying for. It counts its virtues by the vices from which it abstains, asks that religion be easy and pleasant, sneers the term “mystic” at those who are spiritually inclined, dislikes enthusiasm and loves benevolence, makes elegance the test of virtue and hygiene the test of morality, believes that one may be too religious but never too refined. It holds that no one ever loses his soul, except for some great and foul crime such as murder. Briefly, the indifference of the world includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honor, no deep hatred of sin, and no great concern for eternal salvation.

His insights went beyond strictly religious questions. The books – e.g., Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (1928), Freedom Under God (1940), Whence Come Wars (1940), For God and Country (1941), A Declaration of Dependence (1941), God and War (1942), and Communion and the Conscience of the West (1948) – educated Americans on the evils of Nazism, fascism, and communism.

In 1951, now Bishop Sheen appeared at Manhattan’s Adelphi Theatre and said to America, “Thank you for allowing me into your home.” It was the beginning of his award-winning television show, “Life Is Worth Living.” He was the first (and possibly only) religious leader with a show sponsored by a major corporation.

“Life Is Worth Living” was up against “The Milton Berle Show.” Every week America asked, “Shall we watch Uncle Miltie or Uncle Fultie?” Sheen’s ratings skyrocketed, and Mr. Television was knocked off the top of the ratings chart.

The show continued until 1957 and had an estimated audience of 30 million. The bishop, who covered various subjects from psychology to Irish humor to Stalin, received 8-10,000 letters a day. In 1964 Sheen appeared on a weekly show entitled “Quo Vadis America,” and in 1966, “The Bishop Sheen Show.”

On October 2, 1979, seven days after celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of his priesthood, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Pope John Paul II embraced Archbishop Sheen and told him, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”

On December 9, 1979, Archbishop Fulton Sheen died in the Lord. He was buried beneath the main altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had preached for many years. In a nation that still harbored anti-Catholic sentiments, Sheen gave Catholicism a public face that made the Church and its teachings acceptable to millions of Americans.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, God love you – and pray for us.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.