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.








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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 [email protected]

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