The name of Fulton J. Sheen brings to mind many things: “the Golden Age of Catholicism” . . . the stirring sermons . . . the amusing stories and dramatic conversions. . . the black cassock and red cape . . . the glistening pectoral cross . . . the angel cleaning the blackboard . . . and the signature sign-off to his Life is Worth Living television shows: “God love you!”
And now, a new description can be added to the list: a saint-in-waiting.
On June 28, Pope Benedict officially recognized Archbishop Sheen as someone who had lived a life of “heroic virtue,” and declared him “Venerable.” The devout priest from Peoria who became the first televangelist, commanded a weekly audience of 30 million, and appeared on the cover of Time, is now just one step away from beatification, and a second from sainthood, pending two respective miracles. The Vatican is already studying the case of a stillborn child who—having shown no vital signs for 60 minutes—astonishingly came back to life, after his mother prayed for the Archbishop’s intercession.
The advance of Sheen’s cause has elated his many supporters, especially three priests who’ve had a special devotion to it.
Monsignor Hilary Franco, who served as the Archbishop’s assistant when he headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in America—and is the only surviving member of his New York household—told me how thankful he was for the announcement: “I am a living witness to Archbishop Sheen’s holiness.”
Despite all the acclaim he received, Sheen strived to maintain “the simplicity of a dedicated parish priest,” said Monsignor. For Sheen, the priesthood was a precious gift that needed to be nourished through continual prayer. Every day, no matter where he was, even if traveling abroad, he made it a point to spend one hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It kept his mind constantly on the divine, and fortified his work.
Archbishop Sheen’s generosity was legendary. Apart from donating his own earnings to the Church, he raised enormous sums of money for the poor, the missions, and additional works of mercy. He brought famous celebrities into the Church, but brought far more unknowns into it, who were famous “in the eyes of God.” His private acts of charity were never publicized, but flowed from the heart of a servant. Monsignor Franco revealed how the Archbishop rescued a man named Victor from the streets:
He had suffered from leprosy and was so badly deformed he was afraid to show himself during the day. When Archbishop Sheen discovered Victor’s desperate condition, he immediately saw to it that he was cared for, given proper medical attention, and invited him to dine with us every Friday night. He embraced Victor’s full human dignity and treated him as a member of his own family.
Father Andrew Apostoli, the Vice-Postulator of the Archbishop’s cause, seconds Monsignor Franco’s testimony, adding. “I remember watching Archbishop Sheen myself as a young boy, at my grandfather’s promptings, and being so inspired by his teachings. There was no one else like him. He became a hero, and influenced my decision to enter religious life . . . though I never thought I’d actually meet him.”
Father Apostoli not only met the Archbishop, but—through a providential series of events—was ordained by him in 1967, an event he remembers vividly. “At my ordination, Archbishop Sheen spoke prophetically about the critical importance of the clergy, saying: ‘If there is a key to the reform of the Church and the salvation of the world it lies in the renewal of the priesthood.’”
Msgr. Stanley Deptula, the executive director of the Archbishop Sheen Foundation, never got the opportunity to meet Sheen, but he feels as if he did, and he is not alone. “The letters we receive from both clergy and laity show what a profound impact Archbishop Sheen has had upon the Church. His books and recordings speak to people today, as much as they ever did.” Msgr. Franco adds: “And not just in America, but throughout the world, and among many non-Catholics, too.’
All three men stressed how important Sheen’s witness was for them as Catholic priests, calling special attention to his book, The Priest is Not His Own. “I am convinced this book is a spiritual classic, and defines the missions of priests like no other,” says Msgr. Deptula. One passage, in particular, gives a hint as to why the Archbishop was so committed to his daily holy hour:
The only defense against acedia, against the tragic loss of divine reality, is a daily renewal of faith in Christ. The priest who has not kept near the fires of the tabernacle can strike no sparks from the pulpit.
What Archbishop Sheen did for the clergy he expanded for the laity. In books like God and Intelligence, Old Errors and New Labels, The Cross and the Crisis, Communism and the Conscience of the West, Peace of Soul, The World’s First Love, Three to Get Married, and The Life of Christ, he showed what Christianity meant for the contemporary world, and how to protect and extend it when it came under attack.
Long before the new atheists appeared, Sheen exposed their faulty premises and answered their supposed logic. He denounced the evils of Communism, but knew denunciation was never enough, and so fought for an ethic of peace and social justice. He condemned racism and anti-Semitism, and spoke out against the Vietnam War—not because he had softened his views against Communism (far from it), but because of his commitment to just-war principles, and out of conscience. He inveighed against the “false compassion” of certain psychologists, and said the only way to redemption was by acknowledging sin and personal responsibility. He was a champion of Vatican II and Catholic tradition, embodying that vital center of Catholic orthodoxy which represents the Church at its best.
None of which is to say the now-Venerable Archbishop lived an impeccable or tension-free life. Like all the saints (save only the Blessed Virgin), he was an extraordinary but imperfect vessel of God’s grace. He had a lifelong struggle with vanity, which he candidly admitted in his autobiography; had well-known battles with Cardinal Spellman; and his time as the bishop of Rochester (1966-1969) was anything but serene: after just three years of service, he retired.
But it is precisely during the last ten years of his life, mostly off-camera and during serious illness, when the Archbishop reached a new level of holiness. He overcame his temptations toward vanity, said no harsh words against Cardinal Spellman (whom many believe mistreated Sheen), and expressed nothing but admiration for the people of Rochester, even though not everyone there had been open to his dynamic orthodoxy.
In 1979, shortly before he died, Blessed John Paul II embraced a frail but joyful Archbishop Sheen on the altars of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and commended him for his tremendous faith and work, “You have been a loyal son of the Church!” Overwhelmed, Sheen broke into tears.
Fr. Andrew Small, successor to Archbishop Sheen as the current head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, told Vatican Radio that this moving encounter has tremendous symbolic meaning “because Sheen had known suffering in his life. He had known rejection, he had known pain; he had known exile to some extent when he left New York and went to Rochester.” Learning about his crosses, encouraged others to persevere with theirs.
This was the true stardom of Fulton Sheen: his burning love for Christ, his incredible devotion to the Church, and his boundless love for people, whom he gave so much to, and who are still benefiting from his magnificent gifts.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
“Archbishop Fulton Sheen Beatification Could Come Very Quickly,” Catholic News Agency, June 30, 2012.
“Ad gentes: Joseph Ratzinger and Fulton Sheen,” Vatican Radio, July 11, 2012.
Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen (Image, 1982).
America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen by Thomas C. Reeves (Encounter Books, 2001).
Fulton J. Sheen: An American Catholic Response to the Twentieth Century by Kathleen L. Riley (Alba House, 2003).
The Spiritual Legacy of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen by Charles P. Connor (Alba House, 2009).
Archbishopsheencause.org, official website of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation.
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