by Thomas C. Reeves
When American history textbooks mention Archbishop Fulton
J. Sheen at all, it is briefly and in connection with the
allegedly "feel good" Christianity of the 1950s.
To some Americans, Sheen was merely a glib, superficial television
performer and pop writer who blossomed briefly on the national
scene and rapidly disappeared.
Many orthodox Catholics have a clearer understanding of Sheen,
for more than a dozen of his books remain in print, several
anthologies of his writings are for sale, and his television
shows and tapes continue to be popular. The Eternal Word Television
Network regularly features Sheen videotapes. Moreover, an
effort is underway, formally inaugurated by the late Cardinal
O'Connor of New York, to have the Archbishop canonized.
In preparing America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton
J. Sheen (Encounter Books, 2001) I discovered a brilliant,
charismatic, and holy man who has been underestimated by historians,
largely overlooked by the contemporary mass media, and forgotten
by too many Catholics. Indeed, I came to the conclusion that
Fulton J. Sheen was the most important Catholic of twentieth
Sheen was born in tiny El Paso, Illinois, in the north central
part of the state, in 1895. His father was a modestly prosperous
farmer in the Peoria region, his mother a hard-working and
popular farm wife and mother of four boys. The Sheen children
were gifted with high intelligence (one, Tom, had a photographic
memory), trained to work hard (for most of his life Fulton
would work a nineteen hour day, seven days a week), and encouraged
to advance themselves through education. The parents also
stressed the importance of their Catholic faith. The Sheen
boys went to parochial schools, and the family attended church
regularly and said the Rosary together nightly.
Fulton excelled in his school work from the start, and was
an extremely popular youngster. Rather short (five foot seven)
and slim, he was unable to compete effectively in athletics
and so poured his energy into becoming a skilled collegiate
debater. His beautiful speaking voice, penetrating eyes (inherited
from his mother), pleasing personality, and outstanding academic
preparation proved effective in competitions.
From Fulton's earliest years, there seemed to be a consensus
of opinion in the family that he would become a priest. After
graduating from St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois,
he went to seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. From there he
went to the Catholic University of America in Washington,
D.C. to earn a doctorate in philosophy. After ordination in
1919 and receiving two degrees from CUA in 1920, Sheen went
to the prestigious Louvain University in Belgium. Here he
earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with the highest distinction
and was invited to try for a "super doctorate,"
the agrege en Philosophie. He was the first American ever
to receive such an offer. Sheen earned the honor in 1925,
again passing with the highest distinction. He transformed
his dissertation into a prize-winning book and won the respect
and admiration of G. K. Chesterton, among others.
After a brief and successful stint in a slum church in Peoria
(a test given by his bishop to see if he would be obedient),
Sheen became an instructor at Catholic University. He was
to remain on the CUA faculty, teaching philosophy and theology,
from 1926 until 1950.
While proving to be a popular professor, Sheen's interests
were primarily off-campus. After writing two scholarly books,
he began publishing a lengthy list of more or less popular
books and articles that would earn him honors and praise throughout
the country. In 1928, he went on the Catholic Hour,
a nationally broadcast radio program. He quickly became the
program's most popular preacher and for more than two decades
was asked to preach during Lent and at Holy Days. Vast quantities
of letters and financial donations poured in on Catholic
Hour officials whenever Sheen spoke.
Sheen was soon in demand throughout the country and Western
Europe as a preacher, retreat leader, and teacher. He preached
annually at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he packed the huge
church and received much attention in the press.
Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, one of the most powerful
figures in the Roman Catholic Church, took Sheen under his
wing after World War II, and in 1948 invited him to join a
world-wide tour and assume the bulk of the journey's preaching
duties. The two men greatly appreciated each other's talents
(the Cardinal was a superb administrator and fund-raiser),
and in 1950 Spellman had Sheen named to head the American
branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the
Church's principal source of missionary funds. The appointment
came with a miter, and in 1951, Sheen was consecrated in Rome.
Sheen flung himself into his new duties, revealing his great
skill as a fund-raiser. He continued to produce books, articles,
and newspaper columns at an astonishing rate, and accepted
invitations to preach throughout the country and across the
world. Sheen's personal success at winning convertsthe
list included writer Clare Boothe Luce, industrialist Henry
Ford II, and ex-Communist Louis Budenzattracted national
attention. Unmentioned in the press were the thousands of
average Americans who came into the Church because of Sheen's
When, in 1951, the Archdiocese of New York decided to enter
the world of television, Sheen was a natural choice to appear
on screen. The initial half-hour lectures were broadcast on
the tiny Dumont Network, opposite big budget programs by comedian
Milton Berle, "Mr. Television," and singer-actor
Frank Sinatra. No one gave Sheen a chance to compete effectively.
Soon, however, Sheen took the country by storm, winning an
Emmy, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and entering
the "most admired" list of Americans. In its second
year, "Life Is Worth Living" moved to the ABC Network
and had a sponsor, the Admiral Corporation.
Sheen's talks, delivered in the full regalia of a bishop,
were masterful. He worked on each presentation for 35 hours,
delivering it in Italian and French to clarify his thoughts
before going on television. He at no time used notes or cue
cards, and always ended on time. The set was a study with
a desk, a few chairs, and some books; the only prop was a
blackboard. A four-foot statue of Madonna and Child on a pedestal
was clearly visible. Sheen's humor, charm, intelligence, and
considerable acting skill radiated throughout the "Life
Is Worth Living" series, captivating millions eager to
hear Christian (only indirectly Catholic) answers to life's
Some of Sheen's talks and writings dealt with Communism,
which the Bishop, a student of Marxism and a personal friend
of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, thought a dire threat to
the nation and the world. But at no time did Sheen appear
with or praise Senator Joe McCarthy (he had little use for
politicians of any stripe) or directly support the Second
Red Scare, which swept through the country during the early
Sheen was also a student of Freud, and was consistently critical
of Freudian psychology. Sheen's best-selling book, Peace Of
Soul, presented his views on the subject forcefully. At about
the same time, the bishop wrote a powerful book on the Virgin
Mary, The World's First Love, followed a few years later by
an equally impressive Life of Christ.
For all of his concerns about worldly issues, Sheen was above
all a supernaturalist, who fervently believed that God is
love, that miracles happen, and that the Catholic Church best
taught the divinely revealed truths about life and death.
As he put it in Peace Of Soul, "nothing really matters
except the salvation of a soul."
Still, Sheen was not a plaster saint. Vanity was a constant
problem for him, and he knew it. As both priest and bishop,
Sheen lived and dressed well and enjoyed the publicity he
received in the media and the applause of adoring crowds...
Sheen could also be difficult at times when his authority
was challenged. In the early 1950s, he and Cardinal Spellman,
a very proud man, engaged in a bitter feud largely over the
dispersal of Society funds. The struggle led to a private
audience before Pius XII, who sided with Sheen. In a rage,
Spellman terminated Sheen's television series, made him a
local outcast, and drove him from the Archdiocese. In 1966,
Sheen became the Bishop of Rochester.
Bishop Sheen had been an active participant in the Vatican
II sessions in Rome and thoroughly endorsed the reforms that
followed. He tried to make his diocese the bridge between
the old and new Catholicism, enacting sweeping reforms and
making headlines in the process. Without administrative skills,
Sheen alienated many in Rochester, and in 1969 he resigned
and returned to New York.
During the last decade of his life, while battling serious
heart disease, Sheen continued at a breathtaking pace to travel,
speak, and write. During the course of his more than 50 year
career in the Church, he wrote 66 books and countless articles.
No other Catholic figure of the century could match his literary
productivity. (Book royalties and television fees went almost
exclusively to the Society. Sheen estimated that he gave $10
million of his own money to the organization he headed.)
In October, 1979 Sheen met John Paul II in the sanctuary
of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Thunderous applause greeted their
embrace. The Pope privately told the 84-year-old Archbishop
that he had been a loyal son of the Church. Nothing could
have been more pleasing for Fulton Sheen to hear. He died
on December 9, in his chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.
Thomas C. Reeves is a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research
Institute and the author of several books, including A Question
of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. His latest book,
America's Bishop, is the definitive biography of Archbishop
Fulton J. Sheen. It is published by Encounter Books.
Archbishop Barry J. Hickey
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen died in 1979 at the age of 84.
Now, twenty years later, the Catholic world is beginning to
look at him again, not just because he was a great orator
and communicator, but because his public evangelising helps
us understand how to face the serious situation in which the
Church finds herself today, in an increasingly secularised
Truly Fulton Sheen was an evangeliser. This word has only
become part of our Catholic vocabulary in very recent years.
Recent popes have spoken of the need for the Church to evangelise,
and our present Holy Father has frequently spoken of the importance
of what he calls the "New Evangelisation", that
is, the re- evangelisation of post-Christian society through
new methods appropriate for the times.
If we need to evangelise, then obviously we need evangelisers.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was such a one long before the term
After seminary studies in the United States the newly ordained
Fr Fulton Sheen obtained a degree in philosophy at the famous
Louvain University in Belgium, and a degree in theology in
Rome at the Angelicum and Gregorian Universities.
Returning to his diocese in Peoria, Illinois, he worked in
a city parish for a while before being appointed to the Graduate
School of the Catholic University of America in Washington,
DC. So began his career of academic teaching and lecturing,
and his move into apologetics and public speaking.
Fr Sheen spoke in churches, at Church congresses, at major
religious events like the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin,
at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney in 1948, and on street corners
as a member of the Catholic Evidence Guild. Incidentally,
when he went to Sydney, 40,000 people turned up inside and
outside the Cathedral.
His television programs were watched by as many non-Catholics
as Catholics, and he received more mail from non-Catholics
than from Catholics.
He used to say that radio was like the Old Testament, hearing
without seeing, whereas television was like the New Testament,
hearing and seeing, because Jesus the Messiah had come amongst
us. Radio afforded the opportunity of direct teaching. Television
was more indirect, communicating the message through images,
stories and, like Jesus himself, parables.
As one who has to speak often in public, I have taken a close
interest in his methods, especially his practice of not speaking
from notes. He describes his method of preparation, whether
for an academic lecture or for a sermon or homily. He would
read around the topic. He would consult Holy Scripture. He
prayed about it before the Blessed Sacrament and prepared
his initial written notes there in the church or chapel. He
would leave the talk for a while. Coming back to it he would
alter the sequence, add further insights, check the point
in his mind, pray about it again until, as he says, "I
learned the lecture from the inside out, not from the outside
in". He absorbed the talk or homily so much that it became
part of him, it came from within, not from his head.
What I have not even attempted to do is to copy Fulton Sheen's
style. He had a personal gift for oratory and communication
that was unique. We have not seen his equal. There are many
tele-evangelists today who have great talent for preaching
and for using the television medium. I have not yet seen a
Catholic presenter to rival them, except for Fulton Sheen,
who was the first, and in my view, still the greatest.
Fulton Sheen usually began with a joke, and lightened the
atmosphere a few times during his talks with humour. He said
that you had to keep the audience on side - feeling they are
with you, not inferior or feeling talked-down to. Humour helped.
I was interested in the advice that Fulton Sheen received
from the great Cardinal Mercier of Louvain about teaching.
"I will give you two suggestions," he said, "always
keep current: know what the modern world is thinking about,
read its poetry, its history, its literature, observe its
architecture and its art, hear its music and its theatre,
and then plunge deeply into St Thomas and the wisdom of the
ancients and you will be able to refute its errors."
I wonder if the good Cardinal would encourage us, with the
same enthusiasm, to read some of today's literature, see today's
art, listen to its music and go to some of the theatre available
in this city of Perth. Nevertheless, the advice is sound -
know your audience.
The second suggestion: "Tear up your notes at the end
of each year. There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual
growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition
of the same course the following year".
I mentioned that Fulton Sheen was a public Catholic evangeliser.
He is among the very few that we have had or have today.
When we look at the great preachers in Europe like St Dominic,
we see that they preached in an already Christian context.
They presumed faith in calling the people back to prayer and
the conversion of life.
Today in the Western World we are faced with a new situation.
We cannot presume faith. Most of the people in Europe and
Australia are only nominally Christian. Atheism is on the
rise. Religion is pushed to the edge of a secular society
where governments make policies based on a purely secular
ethic, where matters of morality and truth are determined
by majority vote or strong lobbies, in which God or Christian
principles have no role to play.
This is a truly missionary situation for which we need new
missionaries ready to evangelise afresh.
A recent booklet issued by the Congregation for the Clergy
in Rome, entitled The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium,
observes that "large numbers of the baptised have abandoned
following Christ and live by the tenets of relativism. In
many instances, the role of the Christian faith is reduced
to that of a purely cultural factor, often limited to a merely
private sphere, and without any social relevance in individual
or national life" (p. 12). It adds: "As the second
millennium after Christ's coming comes to an end, an overall
view of the human race shows that (the Mission of Christ the
Redeemer) is still only beginning" (p. 11).
Archbishop Fulton Sheen knew this already in the 30s. He
knew he could not simply preach to the converted, but had
to go out into the streets, the universities, the world of
radio and television, the world of mass publication, to call
the world to conversion.
That is why he is so relevant today, an outstanding example
of what we desperately need - holy and effective evangelisers
in the public eye. Where are they? Perhaps the renewed interest
in Fulton Sheen will encourage people of talent, priests,
religious and lay people to come forward.
Fulton Sheen, the evangeliser, led many to conversion. He
reflected much on St Paul in setting his missionary goals.
He spoke often of St Paul's conversion on the way to Damascus
and believed that conversion was possible for any person whatsoever,
even the most unlikely, because conversion is a response to
the action of the Holy Spirit, not the evangeliser.
He thought of St Paul preaching to the Greek intelligentia
on the Aereogapus in Athens, and how he entered their world
to speak of the unknown God - the Father of Jesus the Saviour.
He was particulariy impressed with Ephesus and St Paul's stay
of three years there, particularly his courage in speaking
to the people in the famous amphitheatre of Ephesus.
Fulton Sheen expected to be rejected and opposed as Jesus
and St Paul were. Instead, he found that his message was welcomed
by people who did not know where to turn for meaning in their
Bella Dodd was the lawyer of the Communist party during the
McCarthy era. She was militant, able and convincing. She was
persuaded to meet Fulton Sheen because he lectured on Communism,
on Marx and Lenin. After their conversation, which got nowhere,
Fulton Sheen asked her to go to the chapel with him while
he said a prayer. She silently began to cry. God touched her
heart. Later she was instructed and received into the Church
by Fulton Sheen.
He ran convert classes of fifty to one hundred people. He
brought into the Church drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,
businesspeople, flight attendants, students and professors
- wherever he went, he evangelised. He even brought the famous
violinist, Fritz Kreisler, into the Church.
Pope Pius XII once asked him how many converts he had made.
He answered: "Your Holiness, I have never counted them.
I am always afraid if I did count them, I might think I made
them, instead of the Lord."
How did this man remain so utterly committed to his vocation?
Did he ever take a break, have doubts, transgress? This I
do not know, but he would have had to deal with his own weaknesses
more or less successfully like all of us.
The source of his strength and his untiring self-giving came
from his daily hour before the Blessed Sacrament, which he
never once missed from the day of his ordination to the priesthood.
Unbelievable but true!
From those hours of intimacy with the Lord, he deepened his
love for Him and followed Him as faithfully as any Apostle
or Disciple. Every priest should dwell on his powerful example.
He also had a very tender and deep love for the Blessed Virgin
Mary whom he referred to as "the woman I love".
It needs to be said that this eminent and intellectual man,
this public figure, was always faithful to saying his "three
Hail Marys" each day.
His open-heart surgery in 1977 marked a deepening of his
spiritual life. Being very close to death made him cling more
closely to Jesus his Lord. He began to divest himself of possessions
and unnecessary things in order to be free to be united with
At this same period in his life he was not permitted a smooth
tranquil time, nor any great sense of achievement. He began
to see trends in the Church which in his view were completely
against the true intentions of the Second Vatican Council,
at which he was present, and would seriously damage the Church
and lead to a loss of faith.
He poured out his anguish in his retreats to priests, pleading
with them to arrest the decline of the Church and return to
the solid truth. Sometimes he spoke out in great anger at
the destruction of religious life and the secularisation of
the clergy, particularly under the guise of "psychological
growth". All this was part of his purification. He had
to place his trust implicitly in God, to trust that others
who came after him would be open to the Holy Spirit, tackle
the errors of the day, and continue to preach the Gospel of
conversion and new life.
On a personal note, I met the then Bishop Sheen in 1952,
when I was a student at Propaganda Fide College in Rome. He
came to our College and spoke to us. I remember being impressed
by his powerful preaching, wishing I could one day make an
impact like that.
One last story is told by Fulton Sheen himself, in his autobiography.
"In the early days when I was on national radio, a man
came into St Patrick's Cathedral one Monday morning and, not
recognising me, said: "Father, I want to go to Confession.
I commute from Westchester every day. I had three friends
with me - all Protestants. I became very angry and spoke most
disparagingly and bitterly of that young priest that is on
radio, Dr Fulton Sheen. I just cannot stand him. He drives
me crazy. I am afraid that I probably scandalised those men
by the way I talked about a priest. So, will you hear my confession?"
I said: "My good man, I don't think you committed a serious
sin. There are moments in my life when I share exactly the
same opinion about Dr Sheen that you do. Go to Communion and
reserve your confession for another day." He left very
happily, saying: 'It certainly is wonderful to meet a nice
priest'" (p. 298).
This is the edited text of Archbishop Barry Hickey of
Perth's Inaugural Lecture of the Fulton J. Sheen Society of
Western Australia, given on 9 December 1999.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 2 (March 2000), p. 12