Why Fulton Sheen is a Role Model for Our Time
In the late months of 2012 and into the early days of 2013, I scrolled through Facebook and my news feed was filled with quotes, images, and links to Catholic articles. I wasn’t Catholic at the time, and I hadn’t even firmly decided to sign up for RCIA yet. This flooding of my Facebook account by Catholicism was just one more facet of the “research phase” of my conversion.
There were many quotes to read as I scrolled through the various Catholic pages I had “liked.” Saint quotes. Pope quotes. Theologian quotes. Scott Hahn quotes. But a few stood out above the rest: the words of an archbishop by the name of Fulton Sheen.
He was first memorable to me because of his name; “Fulton” is a cool and under-used name! But the way he articulated the life of Christ and certain doctrines of the Church also drew me in. He had a unique way of explaining the teachings of the Church and the person of Christ that didn’t just illuminate meaning, but truly brought these things to life in both my heart and mind.
God truly used Fulton Sheen’s impeccable and articulate writing to help me understand Jesus Christ, fall in love with Him more, and draw me into the Church once and for all. Since then Fulton Sheen has always had some sort of spiritual presence in my life–be it a quote that he said weighing on my mind, or a book he wrote in my hand or on my desk (Treasure in Clay, his autobiography, has a permanent space on my desk at work).
On my way to Mass with Jesse last weekend, we were discussing what an impact Fulton Sheen has had in my life and I was inspired to put to words why the life and writings of this great and holy man provide us with an amazing model of faith, humility, and trust.
Who was Fulton Sheen?
His life is too fascinating and complex to condense into one blog post, so if you’d like to read a more detailed biography of his life, click here. First and foremost, Archbishop Sheen was a faithful priest of Jesus Christ. He grew up on a farm in central Illinois and he knew from the time he was eight or nine and an altar boy at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria that he wanted to become a priest.
He was ordained on September 20, 1919 at the age of 24 and proceeded to study at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. He ministered in his home diocese of Peoria as well as the Archdiocese of New York, and spent over two decades teaching at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
To the larger Catholic (and non-Catholic) population, however, he is perhaps best known for moving souls to repentance and conversion by the spoken and written word. Beginning in 1926, he hosted a radio program called “The Catholic Hour” on Sunday evenings, broadcast by NBC. In 1940, he appeared on television for the first time on a show sponsored by the National Council of Catholic Men; and in 1952 he began hosting his own television show, “Life is Worth Living.”
Bringing faith to the airwaves was still a very new concept in the early to mid 20th century, but in this regard Fulton Sheen was an amazingly successful pioneer. Having watched a few of his talks (you can find several on Youtube), his success wasn’t due to a Joel-Osteen-smooth-talking type charisma that won over viewers. I think it was two-fold: he had a commanding yet gentle voice, one that made it sound like you were listening to your father or grandfather speak. He wasn’t intimidating or stuffy; he was human.
And secondly, he was speaking the truth to millions of Catholics (and non-Catholics!) in a completely new medium; he brought Catholic teaching to a level of international recognition it hadn’t seen in the United States up to that point.
A Role Model for Our Time
We live in an age that is self-absorbed and proud, secular and at times seemingly unable to speak in anything but sound bites, false claims, or fallacy. Fulton Sheen was the opposite, and we can learn a great deal from him.
Consider the ways his life offers us an amazing example of humility and faith:
He had a great love of Jesus and devotion to Him in the Blessed Sacrament and spent an hour every day in Adoration. In his autobiography, he writes that upon his ordination, he resolved to spend one hour every single day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament–and he did, without fail.
Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly present–in body, blood, soul, and divinity–in the Holy Eucharist; in Eucharistic Adoration, a consecrated host is placed in a monstrance on the altar. We literally get to adore and be in the real and true presence of Christ.
“The purpose of the Holy Hour is to encourage deep personal encounter with Christ,” Sheen wrote, “… to grow more and more into his likeness… we become that which we gaze upon. Looking into a sunset, the face takes on a golden glow. Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain.”
He accepted perhaps one of the greatest crosses of his life with humility and trust. By the time Fulton Sheen was 70 years old, he had been a parish priest, taught theology and philosophy at Catholic University, hosted wildly popular television and radio programs, served as Auxiliary Bishop of New York, and had made an even larger name for himself by his fundraising efforts for missionary causes of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.
In 1966, though, he was told that he would be reassigned to a new diocese–the Diocese of Rochester.
When you think about where he’d been up to that point, it seems like this was a dramatic change–especially for someone of his age. Many people were surprised he was given such an “out of the way” diocese and one that had been plagued by race riots and poverty. But as biographer Janel Rodriguez wrote, he “never once questioned or complained about his fate. He spoke of his experiences as bishop of Rochester in only appreciative and positive tones. The only negative comments he would record [in his autobiography] covered the failings he found in himself while there.” (from Meet Fulton Sheen)
Perhaps even more difficult for him was the fact that when he would give retreats, hold receptions after Mass for clergy members, or hold other lectures, very few in the diocese seemed interested–a stark contrast to the 30 million Americans that had tuned in to hear him speak on the Gospel every Sunday night.
But he faced this immense cross with obedience and with hope: “The work is very hard,” he wrote in a letter to Clare Boothe Luce, “but I love it. I feel that I am sharing in the contemporary crucifixion, and it gives me much joy.” (Meet Fulton Sheen)
He loved Mary and wrote about how devotion to her leads us closer to Jesus. It was no secret that Fulton Sheen deeply loved the Mother of God as his own Blessed Mother. In World’s First Love, he prays: “Teach us, then, that there is no freedom except in doing, out of love, what thou didst do in the Annunciation, namely, saying Yes to what Jesus asks.” (World’s First Love)
Fulton Sheen totally understood and preached that love is not a feeling, but a choice–in both human and spiritual applications. He has a beautiful way of explaining what happens when we pray the Rosary:
“Love is never monotonous in the uniformity of its expression. The mind is infinitely variable in its language, but the heart is not. The heart of a man, in the face of the woman he loves, is too poor to translate the infinity of his affection into a different word. So the heart takes one expression, “I love you,” and in saying it over and over again, it never repeats. It is the only real news in the universe. That is what we do when we say the Rosary, we are saying to God, the Trinity, to the Incarnate Savior, to the Blessed Mother: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Each time it means something different because, at each decade, our mind is moving to a new demonstration of the Savior’s love.” (Praying the Rosary)
He also spoke often of the dignity of women and the unique gifts we bring to the world: “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her.”
He met people where they were. A biography I recently read on Sheen recounts so many instances of Sheen reaching people in all walks of life. At prison retreats he would announce to his listeners, “Gentlemen, there is one great difference between you and me. You have been caught; I was not. In other words, we are all sinners.” (Meet Fulton Sheen)
As a diocesan priest and later as a bishop, he often ran into all sorts of people including prostitutes and thieves. There are countless stories of souls that were hardened in their sin that became softened, repentant, and converted by Sheen’s encouragement. I think he had this impact on people because he truly saw them all, regardless of their situation, as children of God whose souls he loved and wanted to serve.
Sheen also had a way of bringing the Catholic faith to those who were far from the Church. When discussing Sheen’s life and popularity during the mid 20th century, my grandmother said that my grandfather–who was not Catholic or an overtly religious man at all–even sat down on many Sunday evenings to listen to Fulton Sheen.
In 2010, James Fulton Engstrom was born unresponsive; he went without a pulse for over an hour before medical professionals could revive him. While he was literally dead to the world, his parents–already devoted to Archbishop Sheen–prayed for his intercession. The child was revived and has no medical problems to this day, which medical advisors determined for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had no medical explanation. This was the first miracle that moves Sheen ever-closer to canonization.
God willing, we may be able to call Fulton Sheen “saint” someday. For now, I’m so very grateful for what I’ve learned from his writings and his life of faith; and I hope you gain as much spiritual wisdom from his words and witness as I have.
Venerable Fulton Sheen, pray for us.