Archbishop Fulton John Sheen is most remembered for his radio and television programs and his numerous books, but if the Church gets her way, he may also be remembered universally as a saint. His Cause for Canonization was officially opened on September 14, 2002 in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
Sheen as a Student
On September 29, 2003 it took another step with the swearing in of the tribunal that will investigate the cause. They will have their work cut out for them. During his lifetime, Archbishop Sheen penned more than 62 periodicals, published 66 books, and wrote at least two columns in different newspapers, one which ran for 15 years.
Just who was Archbishop Sheen, the multi-faceted man who influenced a generation of Catholics through his teaching and preaching of the Gospel? That is the question that the investigation will undertake.
Named after his maternal grandfather, Peter John Fulton, the future archbishop was born to Newton and Delia Sheen in El Paso, Illinois on May 8, 1895 in a small apartment above his father’s hardware store. Family and friends remember Sheen as a baby who cried a lot due to childhood illnesses.
When Sheen was five years old, a fire destroyed his father’s Main Street hardware store, and the family moved to a family farm in Peoria. There, Sheen attended St. Mary’s Catholic Grade School and later graduated from Spalding Institute in 1913.
Biographer Thomas Reeves described the Sheen family as devout Catholics. They regularly attended Church; Peter and his three younger brothers attended parochial schools. Clergy frequently visited them. They prayed mealtime prayers and said the Rosary nightly. At the age of eight, Sheen began serving as an altar boy at St. Mary’s Cathedral. At the age of 12 he was confirmed.
Education was an important factor in Sheen’s childhood.
“The determining mold of my early life was the decision of my parents that each of their children should be well educated,” Sheen wrote. “This resolve was born not out of their own education, but their lack of it. My father never went beyond the third grade because his father felt he was needed on the farm. My mother had no more than an eighth-grade education at a time when there was one teacher for all the grades.”
Following high school, Sheen attended St. Viator’s College in Bourbonnais, Illinois. A turning point in Sheen’s life occurred while he was attending St. Viator’s.
Sheen competed in a national examination and was awarded a three-year university scholarship. When Sheen informed one of his professors, Father William J. Bergan, of the award, the priest put his hands upon Sheen’s shoulders, looked him in the eyes and said, “Fulton, do you believe in God?”
When Sheen replied “Yes,” Father Bergan asked, “I mean practically, not from a theoretical point of view?”
Sheen responded, “Well, I hope I do.”
“Then tear up the scholarship,” Father Bergan said.
“Father Bergan, this scholarship entitles me to three years of university training with all expenses paid,” said Sheen. “It is worth about nine or ten thousand dollars.”
“You know you have a vocation; you should be going to the seminary,” replied Father Bergan.
“I can go to the seminary after I get my Ph.D. There will be little chance of getting a Ph.D. after I am ordained,” said Sheen.
“Tear up the scholarship; go to seminary. That is what the Lord wants you to do. And if you do it, trusting in Him, you will receive a far better university education after you are ordained,” repeated Father Bergan.
In the end the priest’s prophetic words came true.
Sheen began his theological studies at St. Viator and completed his work at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. On September 20, 1919, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Peoria.
Rather than being assigned to pastoral duties immediately, Bishop Edmund M. Dunne sent him to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. to receive his S.T.L. and J.C.B. degrees. Sheen pursued further postgraduate work in philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium, and earned his Ph.D. in 1923. After spending a year in Rome studying at both the Angelicum and Gregorian Universities, he returned to Louvain and in 1925 was the first American to receive the very prestigious agrege degree.
Sheen was made teaching offers by both Columbia University and Oxford, but Bishop Dunne requested that he return to Peoria to begin his pastoral work as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, a small poor parish on the southern outskirts of Peoria.
In 1926, Bishop Dunne phoned Sheen.
“Three years ago I promised you to Rector Shahan of the Catholic University as a member of the faculty,” said Bishop Dunne.
“Why did you not let me go there when I returned from Europe?” asked Sheen.
“Because of the success you had on the other side, I just wanted to see if you would be obedient. So run along now; you have my blessing.”
Sheen as a Teacher
Sheen would spend 25 years on the faculty of Catholic University of America. In his teaching he followed the advice of Cardinal Mercier always keep to current, and to tear up his 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,” wrote Sheen.
In an effort to keep current, Sheen visited London every summer to study and prepare for his next course. It’s been written that he spent six hours preparing for each hour of lecture. As a result, he was extremely popular among his students. The university even needed to bring extra chairs into his classroom to accommodate the additional students.
As time passed, Sheen was transformed from a classroom teacher into an international educator for the faith. It was from Catholic University that Sheen began writing, and where he launched his career in radio, a career that would span many years, and eventually lead to his television program.
Two years after his appointment to Catholic University, the Paulist Fathers, who had acquired some radio time, asked Sheen to deliver his first radio message. Sheen obliged.
The radio broadcast met with listener approval and Sheen became the first Catholic spokesperson to host a series of regular radio broadcasts. Two years later, when the National Broadcasting Company approached the U.S. Bishops Conference with the opportunity to select someone to host a national prime time radio program, Sheen was their choice.
The Catholic Hour, which was sponsored by the National Council of Catholic Men, aired every Sunday evening. NBC grew from a 17-station network to 118 stations, giving Sheen an estimated audience of more than 7 million listeners. The response was overwhelming. He would receive as many as 6,000 letters a day from listeners, including one from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1940, he celebrated the first religious service ever telecast.
Of the experience, Sheen later wrote, “Little did I know in those days that it would be given to me through radio and television to address a greater audience in half an hour than Paul in all the years of his missionary life.”
Sheen as a Bishop and Communicator
In 1950, Sheen was transferred to the Archdiocese of New York under Cardinal Francis Spellman. There he was assigned head of the national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an arm of the Church that oversaw foreign missionary work.
On June 11, 1951 Pope Pius XII named him Auxiliary Bishop of New York and Titular Bishop of Caesariana.
Shortly thereafter, the Admiral Corporation offered Sheen the opportunity to do a half-hour program for the new medium of television. The Dumont network, seeking to fill an open slot, offered air time to the Church. Donning his skull cap and red cape, and equipped with a blackboard and chalk, Sheen taught and entertained viewers with his Life is Worth Living program. Incredibly, Archbishop Sheen was able to draw viewers from the popular Milton Berle and singer Frank Sinatra programs, prompting ABC to bid for Sheen’s program. What started paying $10,000 per show the first year later grew to paying $16,500 per show, all of which went to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
As a result, Sheen was able to found the society’s magazine, Mission. Under his leadership, donations increased dramatically. Between 1950 and 1966, the society sent $200 million to more than 135,000 missionaries overseas.
Sheen used the program to talk about war, communism, psychology, and issues of faith. He was broadcast across 170 stations in the U.S. and 17 in Canada, reaching an estimated 25 million people. Mail generated by the program averaged 15,000 to 25,000 letters per day. The program ran from February 12, 1952 to April 8, 1957.
One of the program’s most dramatic moments occurred early in 1953. Archbishop Sheen was reading the burial scene from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. However, instead of the names of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus he used the leading communist names of the day Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky.
“Stalin must one day meet his judgment,” Sheen added.
Only days later, Joseph Stalin suffered a sudden stroke and died.
“Radio is like the Old Testament,” said Sheen, “for it is the hearing of the Word without the seeing. Television is like the New Testament, for the Word is seen as it becomes flesh and dwells among us.”
Bishop Sheen was also credited with being responsible for several prominent conversions. Among them were automaker Henry Ford II, playwright Clare Boothe Luce, and newspaper columnist Heywood Broun. He also brought back into the Church Louis F. Budenz, former editor of the Daily Worker communist newspaper and former communist spy, Elizabeth T. Bentley.
Following his successful television run, Sheen continued his work with the Society, continuing to preach, teach, and travel around the world. Archbishop Sheen participated in the Second Vatican Council and in October 1966 Pope Paul VI appointed Sheen Bishop of Rochester, New York, where he served for four years.
It was here that Father Andrew Apostoli, now Vice-Postulator for Bishop Sheen’s Cause and Franciscan Friar of Renewal, first met Archbishop Sheen.
“I was ordained by Archbishop Sheen on March 16, 1967,” said Father Apostoli.
“Archbishop Sheen said during my ordination homily that if there is any key to the reform of the Church and the salvation of the world, it lies in the renewal of the priesthood,” recalled Father Apostoli.
“There is great joy when bishops have sons in Christ,” said Sheen. “The emotional thrill of your first Mass will fade, but the joy of being a priest grows.”
On October 2, 1979 visiting Pope John Paul II embraced Archbishop Sheen in St. Patrick’s Cathedral saying, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”
After a long battle with heart disease, Archbishop Sheen died on December 9, 1979 at his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was 84.
Sheen as a Saint
The Peoria-based Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation, as a way to keep alive Sheen’s ideas and promote knowledge of his writings and teachings, promoted Archbishop Sheen’s cause. The Diocese of Peoria’s Bishop Daniel Jenky is serving as the cause’s sponsor.
While there is still much work to be done, the cause is in its beginning stages. The Foundation has gathered the names of 126 potential witnesses. Dr. Avv Andrea Ambrosi has been named as the Roman Postulator of the Cause, while Father Apostoli is now the U.S. Vice-Postulator. On September 29, 2003, the Diocese of Peoria officially opened the tribunal for the cause. In coming months, the tribunal hopes to begin its investigation while the Foundation attempts to raise the $250,000-$300,000 necessary for the process a process that could take several years.
As part of that process, the tribunal will conduct interviews, investigate Archbishop Sheen’s writings, examine whether he lived a life of heroic virtue, and explore the possibility for miracles attributed to his intercession.
Still, Father Apostoli believes that the time for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization is now.
“There is nothing as powerful as a saint whose time has come,” said Father Apostoli. “We can look at the Church here in America and see that Archbishop Sheen was a moral leader, a great example for our priests and bishops a voice for our times. As he himself would say, “we need a voice that’s right when everyone else is wrong.”