A Failed Bishop

He had failed as a bishop. Hard to admit, but there it was. Less than three years on the job in his diocese, and it was obviously hopeless. Despite hours of prayer. Despite his skill as a preacher. Despite a gift for winning friends and influencing people that had opened doors for all of his priestly career. Up until now.

After some years as auxiliary in a large diocese, Bishop Peter had finally been given one of his own. True, it wasn’t quite the plum diocese he might have expected given his qualifications, but no matter. “Go where you’re sent” is the motto for every good priest, and Bishop Peter certainly hoped he was that. This was the years just following the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Peter wanted his diocese to be a model of implementing church reforms while maintaining complete fidelity to church doctrine and discipline. Since he himself had participated during the Council sessions, he felt qualified to do this.

It didn’t turn out that way. Quite the opposite. This would not be the first time that a holy man, filled with evangelizing zeal and gifted at theology, didn’t fare too well as a bishop. Whatever his other gifts, Bishop Peter was not the most gifted administrator. The tenor of the times didn’t make things any easier, what with dissenting theologians, a mass exodus from the priesthood and religious life, and one very confused laity. So rather than bring progressives and traditionalists together, Bishop Peter managed to displease both sides. Liberals saw him as an outmoded leftover of the pre-Vatican II Church when he stood up for traditional doctrine and morality. They said his decision making methods were authoritarian. Conservatives were annoyed with statements he made against the war in Vietnam. His vocal criticism of racial discrimination at large local factory lost the diocese that company’s considerable financial support. In addition, since he had managed to incur the anger of a very influential and powerful cardinal some years earlier, Bishop Peter didn’t have a chance of getting much support from his fellow bishops.

Not that he meant to make excuses. Maybe God had allowed this to happen to make him humble. Heaven knew, he probably needed it after years of continual success and admiration from everyone around him. So, Bishop Peter sent in his letter of resignation to Pope Paul VI, and made plans to live in retirement in the previous diocese where he had been for so many years before. The unfriendly cardinal had passed away recently, but even so, there was no point in putting his name in for another diocese. He was close to the mandatory retirement age for bishops, and clearly, not cut out for this kind of work. Instead, he would preach a bit, direct retreats if asked, maybe get back to writing the way he used to before his disastrous appointment.

And so he did.  But there’s more.

This particular inept Bishop’s full name was Peter John Sheen, although from childhood he had been called by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Author of 60 plus books. Award-winning radio personality and one of the first big stars of the early days of television, his “Life is Worth Living” show competed successfully opposite secular prime time entertainment. His oratorical skills—including flawless comedic timing—endeared him to viewers of all faiths. He played a part in a number of high profile conversions—Clare Booth Luce, Henry Ford II, Heywood Broun, Virginia Mayo—and tens of thousand of low profile ones. He was the greatest American Catholic evangelist. As spokesman for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith from 1959 until 1966, he turned a spotlight on worldwide foreign missions that brought in millions of dollars to aid the physically and spiritually impoverished. He was a celebrity of epic proportions.

It would take a historian and hours of research to find out exactly what went wrong during Archbishop Sheen’s tenure in the diocese of Rochester from 1966 through 1969. Sheen was a complex man, and during his tenure the Catholic Church was in a complex situation. Few bishops had an easy time of it then. His falling out with the influential Francis Cardinal Spellman certainly didn’t help, either.

What we do know is that the archbishop didn’t let failure stop him. He used his self-imposed exile to produce one of his greatest books, The Life of Christ. He continued to preach in many venues, often to huge crowds that packed churches and overflowed into surrounding streets. He gave away most of the millions that he earned. When Pope John Paul II traveled to America in 1979, he specifically requested to meet Sheen. The photo of their embrace in St. Patrick’s cathedral depicts a moving final recognition of Sheen’s lifelong service to the Church. In keeping with his perfect stage sense, he exited this life only two months later, stricken by a heart attack while making the last of his lifelong, daily holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

Fulton Sheen’s work is still available and in demand today. Reruns of his old TV series are seen on EWTN. Publishers still reprint his books. His cause for canonization is active, and only weeks ago he was named “Venerable” Fulton Sheen. A dramatic miracle has been attributed to his intercession, so it is quite possible that the path to beatification will be a fairly short one.

The thoughts one can draw from this story are many and obvious. If a combination of theological genius, a winning personality, and doctrinal orthodoxy does not guarantee success as a bishop, the job must be very hard indeed. Knowing this, we should probably devote about ten minutes of prayer for our bishop for every one minute we spend criticizing him. And if you think your bishop (or someone else’s bishop) is making a real mess of things, then maybe a novena to the Venerable Fulton Sheen on his behalf would be in order. This might be just the type of intention that the failed archbishop of Rochester would be interested in bringing before the Lord.








Daria Sockey


Daria Sockey is a freelance writer from western Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in many Catholic publications. She authored several of the original Ignatius Press Faith and Life catechisms in the 1980s, and more recently wrote five study guides for saints' lives DVDs distributed by Ignatius Press. She now writes regularly for the newly revamped Catholic Digest. Her newest book, The Everyday Catholic's Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours, will be published by Servant Books this spring. Feel Free to email her at thesockeys@gmail.com

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  • Guest

    This is a beautifully written and moving post.  Well done.

  • K Boucher

    Bishop Sheen was a significant influence on my decision to return to the church. He was a brilliant man, whose ability to weave science, philosophy, history and literature into his discussions of Christian life make him an invaluable resource in this modern (secular) age.

  • And now you know… the rest of the story!

  • Awesome post and a wonderful reminder.  Thank you!

  • Excellently Done!

  • Gail Finke

    What a great post!

  • Mark S.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful reflection.

  • Jim McCrea

    God often teaches us humility when He gives us extraordinary abilities in one area, yet allows us to be mentally challenged in another significant area.

  • Sophia

    When Bishop Peter was head of the diocese where I lived at the time, I had just converted to Roman Catholocism. He was going to Confirm the group I was in. Many of us were nervous as Bishop Peter was well known and “in all the local papers” for reasons given above. He looked at our group, zeroed in  on me and made happy comments about my dimples. It broke the tension just as he had knnwn it would. This was in 1969.

  • Thesockeys

    You are one lucky lady, Sophia. To have been confirmed by Sheen! Wow!

  • mickakers

    What a great article!!!  Loved it.  Thanks.

  • Shoshana

    ‘In addition, since he had managed to incur the anger of a very influential and powerful cardinal some years earlier.’

    In Sheen’s defense, he was ostracized because of the prelate: Here is a quote from the book of his autobiography prefaced by R. Arroyero:

     Prophet Suffering in Silence (Preface by Raymond Arroyo):
     ….In 1957 Bishop Fulton Sheen, then the best-known Catholic in America, with an unmatched television following, began the great trial of his life. He would lose much more than the public realized, all over his refusal to give Cardinal Spellman of New York milk money. […] After examining the facts, Pope Pius sided with Sheen. His biographer, Thomas Reese, reports that Sheen was later confronted by Spellman, who said, ‘I will get even with you. It may take six months or ten years, but everyone will know what you are like.’ It took Spellman less than ten years.
     It is widely believed that Cardinal Spellman drove Sheen off the air. (At the same time the show was shuttered an estimated 30 million viewers and listeners tuned in each week). Suddenly the illustrious preacher found himself unwelcome in the churches of New York. Spellman cancelled Sheen’s annual Good Friday sermons at St Patrick’s Cathedral and discouraged clergy from befriending the Bishop. Bt 1966, Spellman would get Sheen reassigned to Rochester, New York, terminating his leadership at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith…..

    It is important to tell the whole story. Although this incident is not written in his autobiography, this fact remains as truth…When JP2 came to New York, he search for Sheen, found him in a side chapel (as he was not amongst the clergy) and embraced him! A saint seeking another saint…

  • Btiballi

    Bishop Sheen confirmed me during his tenure as Bishop of Rochester, NY.  I have vivid memories of him and the radiance which emanated from his face and his person.  Rochester has had many problems and difficulties with many of its leaders since.  It is an unusual place where much history has been written including women’s suffrage and anti slavery movements in the 1800’s.  FJS has never been one of the problems that Rochester has faced.  I could not be more proud to have been physically close to this spiritual giant.  

  • Rosaryfixer

    Love Bishop Sheen. I have prayed to him often, especially to find things I have lost, and other requests, and he never fails to help with his intercession. . St. Anthony is too busy these days…(smile) Seriously I hope he makes it to sainthood on the fast track. If we ever needed a modern saint to help clean us, he’s the one. His talks are not out of date, perhaps more pertinent to the present times, because sin seems to be worse than ever, but God’s grace will see us through, and he reminds of us of that, and of our responsibility to bring it about by prayer and other means.

  • Shoshana,
    Please don’t think I was trying to imply criticism of Sheen by referencing the dispute with Cardinal Spellman. Few saints have made it through life without gaining some enemies. The point of the whole story was that even a highly successful saint can and will experience setbacks, and seeing how they handle these is part of the good example they give to us.

  • High praise coming from one of my favorite bloggers!

  • Raymond F. Rice

    For me, this article came from the Holy Spirit!!!

  • Emily Hurt

    Beautiful article!  Thanks for sharing! ~a devotee of Sheen over at http://www.theological-librarian.blogspot.com

  • What a beautiful reminder that even (especially) holy people are not loved or liked by all.

  • pizztov

    The most important thing that needs to be mentioned is that Bishop Fulton J Sheen is one of our modern era intellectual giants. He was a man of intellect and philosophy. I hope that our Catholic Universities are teaching this fact to our students.

  • Sue (old)

    My protestant husband and I always watched Bishop Sheen on T.V. I am sure Bishop Sheen, through his T.V. series was responsible for the conversion of many non-Catholics. God Bless Him Always.