Modern Day Saint

Bishop Sheen

1895-1979

On the 25th anniversary of Bishop Sheen’s death, the Diocese of Peoria officially opened the tribunal for the cause of Sheen’s sainthood. Please pray for his Veneration.

Bishop Sheen is so well known that it is hard to write only a few pages about him. He was a prolific author having published 66 books, numerous periodicals and newspaper columns. He was an extremely popular media personality for 16 years. Does this qualify him for sainthood? Read on!

Fulton Sheen was born of devout Catholic parents on May 8, 1895 in El Paso, Illinois, in a small apartment above his father’s hardware store. Five years later when a fire destroyed his father’s store, the family moved to a family farm in Peoria. The Sheen family were devout Catholics; attending Church regularly, attending parochial schools, praying mealtime prayers and 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.

Following high school, Sheen attended St. Viator’s College in Bourbonnais, Illinois. A turning point in his life occurred at St. Viator’s when Sheen competed in a national examination and was awarded a three-year university scholarship. When he informed one of his professors, Father William J. Bergan, of the award, the priest convinced Sheen to tear up the scholarship and enter the seminary. Sheen had a vocation for the priesthood, and Father told him he would receive a far better university education after he was ordained. 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 assign him pastoral duties immediately, Bishop Edmund M. Dunne sent him to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. to earn 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.

Returning to the United States, Sheen, who had teaching offers from both Columbia University and Oxford, assumed he would be transferred to one of these prestigious universities, but Bishop Dunne had other ideas. He requested that Sheen return to Peoria to begin pastoral work as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, a small, poor parish on the southern outskirts of Peoria. After a year, Bishop Dunne admitted he had wanted to see if Father Sheen was obedient and allowed him to transfer to the Catholic University as a member of the faculty.

An excellent teacher, Sheen spent 25 years on the faculty of Catholic University of America. He spent six hours preparing for each hour of lecture and as a result, he was extremely popular among his students. As time passed, Sheen progressed from classroom teacher to international educator for the Faith. It was from Catholic University that Sheen began writing, and where his career in radio was launched which eventually led 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 a host for a national prime-time radio program, Sheen was their choice.

The Catholic Hour, 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, receiving as many as 6,000 letters a day from listeners.

In 1950, Sheen was transferred to the Archdiocese of New York under Cardinal Francis Spellman. It was here that he was assigned head of the national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an arm of the Church which oversaw foreign missionary work. It was because of this assignment he was consecrated as bishop.

In 1951, the Admiral Corporation offered Sheen a half-hour program for the new medium of television. With only his skull cap and red cape, a blackboard and chalk and an unseen angel who erased the blackboards, Sheen taught and entertained viewers with his Life is Worth Living program. Incredibly, Bishop Sheen was able to draw viewers from other networks. His network increased his pay which all 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. Many believe he would have had a longer run on television if it were not for a jealous cardinal who assigned him to other activity.

Following his successful television run, Sheen continued his work with the Society, continuing to preach, teach, and travel around the world. Bishop 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.

On October 2, 1979 visiting Pope John Paul II embraced Bishop 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.”

During his lifetime Bishop Sheen was responsible for an untold number of converts. Once when asked how many people he had converted, he said he did not count them as he would think they were his rather than Our Lord’s. Among several prominent conversions 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.

After a long battle with heart disease, Bishop Sheen died on December 9, 1979 at his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was 84.

As Sheen said of his media experience, “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 did in all the years of his missionary life.” This unprecedented evangelization coupled with his enormous expansion of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and his very devout life including one hour each day praying in front of the Holy Eucharist, certainly qualifies him for sainthood. Bishop Sheen remains with us in his books and videos and will continue to convert thousands.

Jim Fritz

 

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