My next "tomorrow person should not come as a surprise to those who know of my Catholic background. Peter John Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois in the late 1800's over the hardware store that his mother and father owned on main street.
Already at his birth he was making his mark as a communicator, communicating par excellence in the way that babies do by crying. Young Sheen did this constantly. Which leads one to reflect that even at this stage of his life he already was giving an indication of the path his life would take, "of one crying in the wilderness", for truly that young baby was to grow into the greatest voice of the Catholic Church in the United States in the twentieth century.
His skill of communication was such a degree that his family gave him the nickname of that "Fulton baby" after his mothers side of the family. He gives no indication in his autobiography as to why "crying" was associated with his mothers family but the fact that it was would have a lasting impact on how he would be known.
When he was enrolled in the local Catholic school it was his maternal grandfather who brought him to the school. When asked what was the name of the child being enrolled, his grandfather replied, "Fulton." Thus, from that point onward he would be known as Fulton J. Sheen, his name forever changed to reflect the crying that had marked his first years.
Like others whose names have been changed to reflect a mission so it would seem in hindsight was his. Fulton Sheen, like the Baptist, was a voice crying out in the wilderness. There were times that he was popular and other times during his life when he suffered greatly.
It seems that all who encountered the young Fulton marked him for greatness and that he accepted their prophecies gladly. Although he is often criticized for being proud, what he did he did for God and because he was unashamed he brought God to millions. Like our Lord he came from humble beginnings but soon would take his public ministry to the far corners of the world.
Highly educated early on he made his mark by teaching Philosophy at Catholic University ( I attended there also) in Washington D.C. Most of his early works are writings that deal with philosophy but he soon expanded his classroom beyond the University and through the means of radio taught the universe.
His ability to bring the Gospel message alive and to make it relevant to life is what made Fulton J. Sheen a great preacher. His oratorical skills added to his delivery but indeed it was his message that was powerful.What did he attribute his success in preaching to? His daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament. In fact it was so much a part of his life that he prayed that he would die in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament on a Feast of Our Lady. He died in his apartment near his personal Chapel on the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the patroness of the United States on December 7, 1979. As 1999 ended, there was speculation about who had been the greatest, most popular, most significant, or most influential Catholic of the preceding 100 years. When it came to the world, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa scored high on virtually every list. In the United States, names such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Al Smith, and John F. Kennedy received considerable attention. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received little notice. It is my contention that Sheen was the most influential Catholic of 20th-century America. Indeed, it could be argued that his impact was far superior to others receiving more attention in polls and in the media.
In the first place, he was the most popular public speaker in the Church, and arguably the best. Millions listened to his Catholic Hour radio programs from 1928 to 1952. Millions also received printed copies of these talks. In 1949, Gladys Baker, a noted journalist, observed that Sheen was "the name priest in America." She added, "By members of all faiths, Monsignor Sheen is conceded to be the most electric orator of our times."
When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring "Mr. Television," Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. A television critic exclaimed, "Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is…is sensational." In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, winning over media giants Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After winning, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. The journalist James Conniff stated, "No Catholic bishop has burst on the world with such power as Sheen wields since long before the Protestant Reformation." By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.
No record can be made of the thousands of sermons, speeches, and retreats Sheen gave over the decades, often to large audiences. When he was scheduled to preach at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, 6,000 people regularly packed the church. On Easter Sunday 1941, 7,500 worshippers were jammed into the Cathedral, and 800 waited outside, hoping to get in. On Good Friday, his sermons were broadcast outdoors to the thousands standing outside St. Patrick’s. "For three hours," the New York Times reported, "the heart of Manhattan’s most congested midtown area became a miniature St. Peter’s Square. The phenomenon is repeated for the evening service." Many of his television shows, sermons, and speeches are still available on video and audiotape.
An intellectual, theologian, and philosopher of the first rank, Sheen was one of the Church in America’s most prolific writers. Over a period of 54 years, he was the author of 64 books. In addition, he published 65 booklets, pamphlets, and printed radio and television talks. He wrote countless magazine and newspaper articles. In the early 1950s, he was writing two regular newspaper columns, God Love You and Bishop Sheen Writes (which was syndicated in the secular press and ran for 30 years). He edited two magazines, one, Mission, for 16 years. Sheen’s expertise included a wide variety of topics, from Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Dewey. His academic credentials were excellent; he was the first American to be awarded a rare post doctorate degree from the prestigious University of Louvain. His linguistic achievements were admirable. His writing ability was also exceptional, his style being as lucid and yet consistently less pedantic than that of the great Anglican apologist, C.S. Lewis. More than a dozen of his books remain in print. Fifteen anthologies of his writings have appeared, four in the 1990s.
Servant of the people
The archbishop was one of the Church’s great missionaries. In 1979, the Jesuit magazine America called him "the greatest evangelizer in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. He lavished personal attention on both rich and poor." A reporter observed in 1952: "The bishop’s official date book, listing names of those he plans to see (‘I will see anybody with a spiritual problem’), regularly bulges with eight hundred to a thousand entries." Thousands attended his convert classes. No one, of course, could count the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who came into the Church, wholly or in part, as a result of Sheen’s publications and media and personal appearances.
Sheen also had a passion about helping the world’s poor. As national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966, he raised more money for the poor than any other American Catholic, an effort that was augmented by the donation of more than $10 million of his personal earnings. Not long before his death, he declared "My greatest love has always been the missions of the Church."
He was decades ahead of others in his opposition to racism, raising funds and donating very large sums of personal income to help build a hospital and churches for blacks in Alabama. In the late 1920s, while Klansmen were riding through the streets of hundreds of American cities, Sheen was giving speeches stressing racial equality and brotherhood. In 1944, at a time when America’s armed forces were segregated, Sheen wrote of Christ’s "explicit command to love all men, regardless of race or class or color." He strongly opposed anti-Semitism. "For a Catholic to be anti-Semitic," he wrote during World War II, "is to be un-Catholic." He had a special place in his heart for people disfigured by leprosy and disease.
Frequently outspoken, Sheen stirred controversy with strong statements on such topics as communism, socialism, the Spanish Civil War, World War II diplomacy, psychiatry, secularism, education, and the left in general. He often attacked liberal Protestantism: "Satan’s last assault was an effort to make religion worldly." And yet Sheen defied efforts to place him on the political left or right. He was equally critical of monopolistic capitalists, irresponsible labor union leaders, and idealistic advocates of the welfare state. He eschewed all forms of earthly utopianism. Still, he often supported reform, eager to help create a world rid of inequality, insensitivity, hatred, crime, and corruption. In 1967, he fell under attack from the right by opposing the Vietnam War. He was the first American bishop to attempt to implement in a diocese the full teachings of the Second Vatican Council, producing severe criticism from conservatives.
Sadly, the archbishop has been criticized by academics for abandoning his scholarly discipline and writing for the masses. C.S. Lewis was attacked for the same reason. Even the sympathetic Time story cited above contained this criticism. Sophisticated readers looking at the likes of the slight volume, Prayer Book for Our Times; the collection of columns published as Children and Parents; and These Are the Sacraments, with its large number of absurdly pompous photos of Sheen, might easily conclude that the author was merely a media personality and an intellectual lightweight.
In reply, it must be said that Sheen was essentially a missionary. He might have spent his life writing for philosophy journals. Instead, he reached out to as many people as possible, convinced that human souls were more important than scholarly disputation. Still, the intellectual level of his publications never descended very far. Anyone who reads These Are the Sacraments, as well as looks at the photographs, will discover a learned, sound, and appealing exposition of Church teaching. Children and Parents is both wise and thoughtful. It also bears pointing out that Sheen produced many volumes to raise funds for the world’s poor. Almost all the royalties from his books after 1950 went to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and the proceeds from his sponsored television programs were devoted to the same cause.
The Sheen story is about a remarkable man whose spiritual intensity was the primary force that propelled him throughout his life. His life in the Church spans one of the most exciting periods in the venerable institution’s history, from an era characterized by growth, discipline, evangelism, self-confidence, and exclusivity, to the post-Vatican II period known for its change, dissent, disillusionment, ecumenism, and openness to the modern world. Because of Sheen’s wide interests, his story encompasses virtually every major political, social, and cultural development of the 1920s through the 1970s. Fulton J. Sheen’s brilliance, knowledge, acuity, devotion, and incredible energy compel the biographer to reflect on the history of the nation as well as the individual. We might share our favorite quote from the good bishop "Truth must be sought at all costs, but separate isolated truths will not do. Truth is like life; it has to be taken on its entirety or not at all. . . . We must welcome truth even if it reproaches and inconveniences us -- even if it appears in the place where we thought it could not be found."
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen definitely a "tomorrow person"