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Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

November 2, 2021 saints No Comments


He could not remember an age when he didn’t want to be a priest.
Peter John Sheen was a first generation American, born of Irish parents. One of four brothers, he joked of his lack of aptitude for farming. Despite his given name, he was commonly known as “Fulton,” which was his mother’s maiden name. His hometown had the unlikely name of El Paso, Ill. Fulton’s mind must have been in the clouds, because he excelled at his studies, achieving the coveted spot of high school valedictorian.
The future author of somewhere between 60-70 books left home and started his new life by entering St. Paul’s Seminary in Minnesota, being ordained a priest in 1919. From his Ordination till his death, he made a famous promise to never omit a daily holy hour. It was a promise he kept. After a year at Catholic University, he next headed abroad to work on a double doctorate.
His first doctorate was awarded at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Fulton learned French and was the first American there to win honors for the best philosophical treatise. And as holy people generally do, he also won souls for Christ. Time Magazine detailed that on the way to Belgium, Fulton and his brother — who was studying medicine — went by way of Paris, to practice French. There the priest met a woman who wanted to kill herself. He begged her to wait just nine days, and spent time with her every day, using a dictionary as needed to talk to her in his pigeon French. On the last day, she converted.
Finally came his doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome. Then his first post was a year in London, serving at a parish in Soho while teaching at St. Edmund’s, the UK’s oldest (post-Reformation) Catholic school. He fielded offers from Oxford and Columbia, as his bishop called him back to the United States, to Peoria, to test his humility and obedience. But in a year, he sent him back to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. There he would teach for many years to come. Something that Sheen himself did not know was that in 1935 his own bishop back home lobbied the Vatican that he might be made the rector of Catholic University. That letter was sent to the Vatican secretary of state, the future Pope Pius XII.
By 1926 Sheen was teaching (he would remain at this post till 1950) and dabbling in a new venture, radio. His first appearance truly was at Radio City, N.Y., on the day it opened! Guest appearances became regular and were done in addition to his teaching load. Beginning in 1930, he hosted The Catholic Hour. Though initially airing on a small amount of stations, the amount was quickly accelerated and eventually the mail count reached hundreds of thousands of letters. The archdiocese couldn’t keep up with demands for the audience tickets!
According to the U.S. Census, in 1930 there were 12 million households that had a radio. Well, four million would end up listening to Fulton Sheen’s program. And he was in what today is known as a prime-time slot, dinner hour. Due to exhaustion, Sheen had to take a break in 1950.
Anyone who has listened to Fulton Sheen’s programs — which are still aired on EWTN, and can also be found on YouTube and elsewhere on the web — cannot help but be drawn by his oratory. He has a charisma before the microphone or camera, and studied speaking in Rome. That may have helped, but clearly, he had a natural gift and magnetism that drew people to his voice and persona, to hear his words and the meat behind them.
On June 11, 1951 Sheen was named bishop, serving as auxiliary to the Archdiocese of New York. That same year he began hosting, Life Is Worth Living (1951-1957). The show was pegged in the TV line-up opposite Milton Berle, but Sheen bested him in the ratings.
Everyone watched, not just Catholics. Estimates said that an average of thirty million listened to the program. And he never used notes. Fr. John Baptist Ku, OP, on the website of the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph, has written about Fulton Sheen.
For each half-hour telecast, he prepared for about thirty hours, yielding an hour’s worth of material. Though he “would forget this or that point” which he intended to deliver, he “could draw on the store of accumulated information to take its place. To clarify the subject in his mind, Sheen would deliver the talk in French and Italian to a staff member and a professor a few days before the show. . . . Sheen’s first rule for teaching, preaching and giving retreats was ‘. . . never sit. Fires cannot be started seated. If the students would have to “stand” for my lectures, I ought to stand for them.’ He believed that a preacher who uses notes is about as effective as a man proposing to a girl from a notebook.”
Though it was hard for him, in 1957 he finally left his teaching post at Catholic University to focus on a new role, head of the Society for the Propagation for the Faith. Within three years, he was back on the air with, The Fulton Sheen Program. The show aired until 1968, and his popularity soared. The money that Sheen earned was all donated to the Society, and donations poured in. He was able to send millions abroad, much of it helping non-Christians, too.
At age 70, life gave Sheen a “curve ball” when Cardinal Spellman appointed him bishop of Rochester, N.Y. Some thought it was a punishment as the two were engaged in a dispute of sorts. Bishop Sheen resigned three years later, at which point he was named archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.
My Confirmation sponsor worked in Rochester for Catholic Charities, supervising counseling for unwed mothers and families. At the time her own mother died, Bishop Sheen was there, and he took time to attend the funeral. It might be said he made time for everyone.
Indeed, the FBI even had a dossier on him. But the file contains nothing damning, mainly numerous friendly letters that Edgar J. Hoover wrote to Fulton Sheen, including one thanking him for addressing the FBI Academy. The FBI also praised a film he did on Communism, noting that the FBI should use it for their teaching in FBI classrooms.
The file also finally relates how the priest invited Louis Budenz, editor of the Communist Daily Worker, to meet and chat about Communism and his soul. Later Budenz returned, not to discuss the Revolution, but the state of his own conversion.
Two months before Sheen’s death in 1979, Pope St. John Paul II met him in New York and embraced him, saying: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church!” He might just as well have said, “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). The look on Fulton’s face is tremendous.
Pope Benedict XVI, who knew Sheen from the days of Vatican II, promulgated a decree on his heroic virtue in 2012. Now Venerable Sheen’s beatification has been approved and we await the date and, we hope, one day, his canonization. For intercessory prayers go to: celebratesheen.com.

Beatification Miracle

Eleven years ago, Bonnie Engstrom and her husband were expecting a baby in Illinois. The pregnancy had gone well and during the months they had enjoyed watching Fulton Sheen so much on television that they decided if they had a boy to name him James Fulton. She began asking his intercession throughout every day of her pregnancy. When it came time for delivery, the unthinkable happened: a knot formed in the umbilical cord and the baby boy was born with no heartbeat.
According to a Catholic News Service report, as the medical team worked on him for 61 minutes, she repeated over and over, “Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen.”
Finally, the baby’s heart began beating and while the parents were cautioned as to what handicaps to expect, today their little boy is completely healthy. The boy who was dead an hour, lives.

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