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Catholic Heroes… Blessed Fulton Sheen

December 5, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Saints do not seek after fame, but sometimes it comes their way anyway, for the edification of the faithful and the world at large. Mother Teresa in her humble and simple way was known around the world and even won the Nobel Peace Prize.
And television will certainly catapult a dynamic personality blessed with Irish wit and wisdom to worldwide fame. Such was the case for Fulton J. Sheen as his audience grew with unprecedented speed.
Born in El Paso, Ill., on May 8, 1895, Sheen was the eldest of four sons. His parents, farmers whose families came from County Roscommon in Ireland, named their son Peter John Sheen.
When still an infant, Peter contracted tuberculosis and nearly died, but, with resilience, he recovered. Some years later, the family moved to Peoria where Peter insisted on being called Fulton, which was his mother’s maiden name.
The young man received a good Catholic education in Peoria and from a young age knew that he wanted to be a priest. His hopes were almost dashed when he had an accident. When he was putting away the cruets used in a Mass celebrated by the bishop of Peoria, he dropped one of the fragile vessels, and it shattered on the floor.
Horrified at what happened, Fulton listened in awe as Bishop John Spalding told him that one day he would study at the Louvain in Belgium and said to Sheen, “Someday you will be just as I am.”
Fulton breezed through middle school and graduated from the Spalding Institute as valedictorian. He then went to St. Victor College before going to the St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. On September 20, 1919 in Peoria, Sheen was ordained to the priesthood.
With his stellar academic achievements, Fr. Sheen was sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and then to the Louvain in Belgium, as predicted. While there he obtained his doctorate in 1923 with highest honors. During his studies there he won the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy, the first American to ever win the award.
He also studied in Rome and Paris, receiving a degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontificum Collegium Internationale Angelicum.
Sheen then went to England where he taught theology at St. Edmund’s College in Ware, although both Oxford and Columbia had sought him for their staff.
Soon Bishop Edmund Dunne of Peoria called Fr. Sheen back to Peoria to take charge of St. Patrick’s Parish — a fitting job for an Irishman.
Just eight months later, the rising priest was transferred to Catholic University where he drew attention for his simple and humble ways, even more than for his brilliance. He neither drank alcohol nor smoked. He took no vacations, gave his money to the poor, and dedicated himself fully to his work.
While Fr. Sheen rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a full professor and papal chamberlain to Catholic University, he also became a popular radio personality. In 1929 Fr. Sheen addressed the National Catholic Education Association, urging teachers to bring about a Catholic Renaissance through which Catholics would integrate their faith into the rest of their lives.
Beginning in 1930 he hosted the Catholic Hour Radio program on NBC radio on Sunday nights. The program regularly had an audience of four million listeners for two decades until 1950. He received 75 to 100 letters a day which he tried to answer, leaving him exhausted since he was still lecturing and spent six hours preparing for each lecture.
Sheen’s work was so successful in reaching souls that Pope Pius XI named him a monsignor in 1934. He was only 39 years old.
In 1951 Adeodato Giovanni Cardinal Piazza consecrated Fulton Sheen auxiliary bishop of New York on June 11, 1951. Bishop Sheen, in addition to his broadcasts, wrote 32 books before he left Catholic University in 1950 to head up the National Society for the Propagation of the Faith — a good position for his radio outreach and for the work he would soon do.
From 1951 to 1965 Bishop Sheen served the Archdiocese of New York. At the same time he began his show Life Is Worth Living. The brilliant orator was called “telegenic” for his gifted television persona.
Having begun with only three stations syndicating his broadcasts, two years later he won the 1952 Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality, beating Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey. He beat Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra in ratings as well. He gave credit for his success to his writers: “I wish to thank my four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
He spoke the truth without shame or fear, understanding that knowing the truth brought peace of mind and living the truth brought peace of soul. He wrote a book entitled Peace of Soul.
He converted many persons with his loving frankness and ability to read souls. For people seeking to learn more about becoming Catholic, he gave them The Catholic Catechism, written by Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.
Whenever Fr. Hardon visited Archbishop Sheen they began their visit with an hour of Eucharistic Adoration, just as the bishop began every day.
After a conflict with Francis Cardinal Spellman over the funds for the Propagation of the Faith (which the Pope found in Sheen’s favor), Sheen was removed from the New York Archdiocese and placed as head of the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.
During his time in Rochester, he began a new television program called The Fulton Sheen Hour, which ran from 1961 to 1968. In 1969 he retired from being the bishop of Rochester.
He returned to New York and lived in a small apartment. Archbishop Sheen had a shrewd understanding of the evils of socialism and Communism and fearlessly warned his audiences about them.
He also lamented the use of nuclear weapons that caused so many innocent civilian deaths. More important, he reached people where they were spiritually and led them to a deeper love of God and to a better moral lifestyle. Every soul was important to him.
Pope Paul VI appointed Sheen archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales. This mostly honorary title which required little work allowed him more time to continue preaching and writing books.
In July 1977 Archbishop Sheen underwent heart surgery and spent most of his remaining years in his New York apartment. When Pope St. John Paul II came to New York and celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 2, 1979, he embraced Archbishop Sheen, declaring, “You have written and spoken well of Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.”
Two months later on December 9, 1979, Archbishop Fulton Sheen died in his private chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. He was interred in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the other archbishops of New York. Recently his remains were moved to Peoria.
On December 21, 2019, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen will be beatified at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception where he received his First Communion, he was confirmed, and where he celebrated his first Mass after Ordination.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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