Bishop Sheen: What’s in a Name?

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s destiny was encrypted in his name for in the Gaelic language, ‘fulton’ means war and “sheen” means peace.  Sheen’s lifelong goal was to establish peace, but he was constantly at war with the various obstacles that got in the way of that noble ideal.  As a warrior for peace, he established a unique and enviable place within the Catholic Church of 20th century America.  In the immortal words of Ludovico Ariosto, “Natura il fece, e poi ruppe lo stampo” (nature made him and then broke the mold).  Will there ever be another Bishop Sheen? 

Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 hit song, Mrs. Robinson, includes the phrase, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”  The question puzzled the Yankee Clipper.  “I have not gone anywhere,” he said, “I’ve always been right here”.  The musical duo explained to him that the phrase was a metaphor.  No one has replaced Joltin’ Joe, legendary hero to millions.  We no longer see his equal.  He made Italians feel proud of their heritage at a time when they were routinely maligned, and was the envy of his competitors.  We long for his successor, though we wonder if anyone will ever be capable of filling his shoes.

We may apply the same question to another hero of millions, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and receive a similar answer.  DiMaggio has been enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Bishop Sheen has been declared venerable.  Sheen was to Catholics, what DiMaggio was to baseball fans.  Bishop Sheen made it easier for Catholics to be proud of their faith and was the envy of non-Catholics.  We do not see his like, needed as it is, in today’s world.

Bishop Sheen had the incomparable combination of faith, intelligence, wit, oratory, and the ability to convince.  With regard to the latter, he is crediting with assisting in the conversions of Fritz Kreisler, Loretta Young, Clare Booth Luce, Heywood Broun, Louis Budenz, and who knows how many others.  He spent his day in prayer, meditation, and in the spotlight, an unusual combination for anyone.  In 1952 he won an Emmy for “Most Outstanding Television Personality”.  On receiving the award, he humbly thanked his principal writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The Jesuit magazine, America called him “the greatest evangelist in the history of the Catholic Church in America”.

Today, the Catholic Church lacks the kind of heroic and appealing emissary that Bishop Sheen was.  The Church is presently mired in clergy scandals, poor leadership, and confusion on a number of doctrinal points.  The interface been the Church and the secular world has left many issues in doubt:  Should same-sex “marriages” be blessed?  Should Catholics use vaccines from aborted fetuses?  How should the Church look upon sex changes?  How should the Church deal with the LGBTQ group?  Should there be female priests?  Should Catholic doctors be free not to violate their consciences?  There are priests who are zealously promoting homosexuality, so-called Catholic politicians furthering the cause of abortion.  Many bishops are at loggerheads with each other.  People are leaving the Church in droves.    

The Church is reeling from the many controversies that are afflicting her.  The voice of the secular world seems to be drowning Church out teaching.  Since Pope Saint John Paul II has left the stage, no one appears to be offering a unified picture of the Church.  Trends have supplanted Truth.  Novelty has replaced orthodoxy.

One of Bishops Sheen’s many virtues was his resistance to novelty.  This was evident early in his career, back in 1922, when had an encounter with a trend-setting philosopher, Samuel Alexander.  Professor Alexander was the talk of the town, so to speak, with his daring new book, Space, Time, and Deity.  The book broke new ground in proposing the God is the deification of time.  On that occasion, Sheen was working on his thesis, God and Intelligence in the Modern World, one that was diametrically opposed to Alexander’s.  Sheen asked the popular professor whether he had any interest in reading the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  “No,” Alexander shot back, “I would not be interested because you become known in this world not through Truth, but through novelty, and my doctrine is novel”. Ironically, one of the few avenues left open to the name Samuel Alexander is through his meeting with Bishop Sheen.

We are confronted with the same problem in our world of today:  Truth versus novelty.  Sheen had the enviable ability to make Truth appear fresh and novelty appear stale.  People hunger for something new and it is delivered at their doorstep each day in the form of the daily newspaper.  The Bible, the eternal world of God, gathers dust while readers hungrily scan the newspaper.  Mark Twain focused on the problem when he stated that “If you do not read the newspaper you are uniformed, but if you read the newspaper you are misinformed”.  For Walter Lippman, in his book, Public Opinion, the only truth one can expect to find in the newspapers of today is in the box scores.

There may be bishops who are waiting in the wings, preparing to take the place of a new Bishop Sheen.  They will understand that Truth prevails, while novelty withers on the vine.  They will know that secularism is self-destructive, whereas the Church is indestructible.  They will have the courage not to bow to politics, nor will they cower in the face of criticism.  They will understand that orthodoxy is neither left nor right, but centrally located as a paradoxical balance between two opposing tendencies.  G. K. Chesterton said it best when he wrote the following in his Orthodoxy:  

“To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

We happily anticipate and cordially welcome the new Bishop Sheen.

image: Stained glass of Ven. Fulton Sheen at the St. John Paul II Chapel, Mundelein / photo by Fr. Gaurav Shroff / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you have been inspired by Ven Sheen, we recommend the book, Archbishop Sheen’s Book of Sacraments

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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