He was born Peter Sheen in the tiny community of El Paso, Illinois on May 8th, 1895 in the Diocese of Peoria. El Paso is an agricultural town of roughly 2,500. He was one of four sons of Newton and Delia Fulton Sheen. Newton owned a hardware store at 25 Front Street in downtown El Paso. The family lived above the store. After losing their hardware store to a fire, Newton Sheen moved the family to farm the land he inherited from his father. It was on this farm where young Peter became a "cowboy." He became endeared to his pony "Bob" resembling more a natural rider who had been raised in El Paso, Texas rather than Illinois. His parents wanted their children to get an education, so they moved 50 miles west to Peoria so 'Peter' and his brother Joe could attend St. Mary's parochial school. Because he cried a lot as a child (due to having tuberculosis it was later found), friend's and relatives would jokingly say, "Oh, he's Fulton's baby." When he entered St. Mary's the enrollment form showed his grandfather's name Fulton Sheen and by default from that time on, he was now known as Fulton Sheen; a name he fully accepted. He took the name John for his Confirmation name.
In the Fall of 1909 he entered high school and four years later graduated from the Spalding Institute secondary school in Peoria. From there he enrolled at St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois. As a member of their debating team, they defeated Notre Dame, for the first time ever. That summer, after scoring high on a national exam, he won a three-year scholarship to the university of his choice. Excited, he sought out one of his professors at St. Viator's - Father William Bergan - to tell him the good news. Much to his surprise Father Bergan talked him out of it and into a vocation. Even though young Fulton argued that he would be giving up an education that in those days amounted to just under ten thousand dollars, and that he could enter the seminary later after he had acquired his Ph.D., the wise priest's counseling struck a chord. Rather than arguing with the young collegian, Father Bergan looked him square in the eye and said, "Tear up the scholarship; go to the seminary. That is what the Lord wants you to do. And if you do it, trusting in Him, you will receive a far better university education after you are ordained than before." As Bishop Sheen would write later, "I tore up the scholarship and went to the seminary. I have never regretted that visit and that decision." In fact, he also wrote that he could never remember a time in his life when he didn't want to be a priest.
With the blessings of the Bishop of Peoria - Bishop Edmund M. Dunne - he entered the seminary, completing his theological studies at St. Viator and then major scholasticate work at the major seminary at St. Paul's Seminary in Minnesota under the auspices of the new shepherd there Bishop Austin Dowling. On September 20, 1919 during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria. Rather than being assigned to pastoral duties immediately, his bishop sent him to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. - a fulfillment of what Father Bergan had told him, where he received his S.T.L. and J.C.B. Degrees. From there it was on to the University of Louvain for postgraduate studies in Belgium. In 1925, just before he was to embark from Europe he received two professorial offers from Columbia and Oxford. Seriously considering them, he asked Bishop Dunne if he could accept one of the offers and the bishop asked him to return to Peoria where he began pastoral work as an assistant pastor in a small parish on the outskirts of Peoria. It had to frustrate him that he received more offers to teach, including Detroit University where they wanted him to organize the philosophy department for the seminary there in early 1926. Again he asked his bishop and again his bishop turned him down. His obedience was being tested but Father Sheen was, above all else, obedient and, not fully understanding, complied without arguing. Rather than feeling resentment, he threw himself into his work as assistant pastor. This also helped him forget the lost opportunities and always believing that when God closes one door, He opens another. That portal swung wide open later that year when Bishop Dunne called him in and reassigned him to the faculty of Catholic University in Washington D.C. He told Father Sheen that he had promised his colleague bishop with jurisdiction over the university that he could have Father Sheen, but not right away. Bishop Dunne had seen the tremendous intellectual acumen in this young priest overseas but wanted to make sure of his obedience and so he tested Father Sheen and the latter passed with flying colors. Thus he was sent packing east with Bishop Dunne's blessings during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI.
He would spend a quarter of a century at Catholic University and from there would springboard his radio and television career. It was here also where he began to write and publish his books. While he continued to teach, he never lost a moment in evangelizing the Word and this progressed as the years went on. While he is famous for his multi-media contributions, there are those who believe that had he remained a full-time professor he would have been proclaimed the Saint Thomas Aquinas of this century. But the question remains, would he have reached as many people? We doubt it and God, in His infinite wisdom, chose the right path for His obedient shepherd.
He had studied world history as well as the encyclicals and writings of the Popes, including Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI. He realized communism was a real threat to the world long before the world recognized its evils. He always believed that "a Catholic who does not strive to spread his Faith is a parasite on the life of the Church" and he was definitely not a parasite. His whole priesthood was dedicated to exposing all errors, movements and tactics that were foreign to or enemies of Christ. Therefore he exposed the errors of modern philosophy and communism. He wrote "Communism," then "Communism and Religion" and finally "Liberty Under Communism." It must be remembered that this wasn't necessarily a popular way to go for he published these during the war years when the hammer and sickle was considered an ally against the swastika. But he could see the "red terror" was looming for he was a visionary chosen by God through inspiration of the Holy Spirit garnered from his daily one-hour contemplative prayer before the Tabernacle.
He placed the root of the cause not on Russia, but as the "apocalypse of violence" evolving from the errors of modernism in the West, showing how communism had its roots in German philosophy, French sociology and English economics. He had studied all of these while in Europe at the Sorbonne in Paris, the Collegio Angelico in Rome and while teaching Dogmatic Theology at St. Edmund's College near Ware, England where he was awarded the prestigious Cardinal Mercier International Philosophy Award from his alma mater in Louvain. He pointed out that "I consider everything a waste except knowing Christ. Anything that is done or read or spoken or enjoyed or suffered that does not bring me closer to Him makes me ask myself: why all this waste?" Despite all his accomplishments and honors, he felt strongly, as he wrote, that "If you know Christ, it does not matter if you know nothing else; but if you know not Christ. It is nothing to know everything else" ("Si Christum discis, Satis est si cetera nescis; Christum si nescis; Nihil est in cetera discis"). Because of this he was not afraid to speak out strongly against the Lord's enemy surfacing in Russia and Eastern Europe and making inroads in America. Unlike others, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, he did not attack or accuse individuals, but rather philosophies. He wrote, "Communism is not to be feared just because it is anti-God, but because we are Godless; not because it is strong but because we are weak; for if we are under God, then who can conquer us?" Slowly but surely he became known for his phrases and short quotes that made so much sense. He believed with all his soul that "unless souls are saved, nothing is saved. there can be no world peace unless there is soul peace."
Soul peace began and ended with the Cross. For Bishop Sheen, the crucifix was what his spirituality revolved around. He did nothing for himself, but for Christ. He was the clay, the treasure attached to it were God's. He wrote "Peace of Soul" and it was well received nationally. In it he wrote that "If we remain in sin through the denial of sin, despair takes possession of our souls" and that "the condition of despair induced by unrepented sin often reaches a point where there is a positive fanaticism against religion and morality. He who has fallen away from the spiritual order will hate it, because religion is the reminder of his guilt." This is so obvious today in the world, in politics, in the media and even within the Church where dissidents hate the Church for what she is and strive to change it to rationalize their unrepented sins. Though Father Sheen was assigned to Catholic University, he was loaned out by the bishop to many universities and venues, becoming a roaming professor dedicated to Rome. It was in this capacity that he first began his audio-visual ministry way back in 1928.
The Paulist Fathers had acquired some time on the radio in New York City and they asked Father Sheen, because of his eloquence and ability to relate to all, to do the first radio message. This was met with accolades and he continued for the next two years, becoming the first Catholic spokesperson to do a series of regular broadcasts that were so successful the fledgling National Broadcasting Company approached the United States Bishops Conference, offering them the opportunity to select someone for a national radio broadcast in prime time. The National Council of Catholic Men decided to sponsor "The Catholic Hour" on Sunday evenings in cooperation with NBC Radio network. It was too good to be true and they unanimously selected Father Sheen, promoting him to Monsignor Sheen. The show was called "The Catholic Hour" aired every Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Bishop Sheen became the first regular speaker on the program following it's first broadcast, on March 2, 1930. From a 17 station network it grew to be carried by 118 NBC affiliates by 1950 as well as by short wave to the entire world. It was estimated that over 4 million people in the U.S. alone listened to him weekly. He would receive as many as 6,000 letters a day from listeners. About a third of them from non-Catholics. In 1940, he conducted the first religious service ever telecast. And in 1950 narrated the March of Time's film, "The Story of the Vatican."
While his programs, especially "The Catholic Hour," were well received by non-Catholics, some so-called experts within the Church, especially with Catholic publications thought his weekly show wasn't entertaining enough because it was going head to head with the comedic "Amos n' Andy Show." However, their fears and judgments were soothed when after three months nearly three quarters of a million letters poured into NBC in support of Monsignor Sheen's program. One of those letters came from Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. To all of this, Sheen was thankful and incredulous, writing later, "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 in all the years of his missionary life."
This aspect of missionary work would become even more astounding in the early fifties. In 1950 he was transferred to the Archdiocese of New York under Cardinal Francis Spellman and assigned head of the national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith which oversaw foreign missions. With Monsignor Sheen at the helm donations increased tremendously and a new spirit of evangelizism permeated throughout. On June 11, 1951 Pope Pius XII named him Auxiliary Bishop of New York and Titular Bishop of Caesariana and summoned him to Rome where Cardinal Adeodato Giovanni Piazza ordained him to the episcopal ranks at Cardinal Spellman's titular Church of Saints John and Paul in Rome.
Returning home, Cardinal Spellman gave the newly-made bishop permission to pursue additional work for the Admiral Corporation had made an offer, asking Bishop Sheen to do a half-hour program for the new wondrous medium on the American scene: television. Bishop Sheen chose the title "Life is Worth Living" and thus launched one of the most phenomenal runs in the history of television. Dismissing all props except a blackboard and chalk, he mesmerized viewers with his sincere and simple words that struck home with so many. Here was a case where the parent network Dumont had to fill an open void in their scheduling and so made it available to the Church. The network cronies figured it was a dead spot anyway since they were going head to head with such all-time luminaries as Milton Berle on one network and Frank Sinatra on the other. Little did they, or anyone else realize the tremendous impact this frail-looking prelate in the flowing red robes would have on an entire nation. Berle, affectionately known as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" and Sinatra, known simply as "the voice" saw their own ratings slip and this prompted ABC to bid for Bishop Sheen's services. Thus, after receiving $10,000 per show the first year, and $12,000 per show in 1953 and $14,000 a show the next year, he agreed to ABC's offer of a national hook-up for "Life is Worth Living," receiving an increase to $16,500 per show, a tremendous amount back then. Bishop Sheen earmarked every penny earned to the Society of the Propagation of the Faith with the cardinal's blessing. This also enabled him to begin and enhance the Society's regular publication Mission to inform Catholics of the needs of the missions and complement that with a quarterly publication entitled Worldmission in which he inserted facts and examples of various missions, always inserting a little subliminal plug for the missions in a way that would tweak the consciences of the readers.
That is one thing Bishop Sheen was very, very good at: tweaking consciences. He reached non-Catholics by making them feel at home and then whetting their appetite for home by reminding them of the Truth of Jesus Christ's teachings. He was responsible for so many converts, a few of the notables being Clare Booth Luce and Haywood Hale Broun. He reached countless others through his weekly column God Love You carried in almost all Catholic weeklies throughout the country in addition to his weekly television show. By 1956 Bishop Sheen was appearing on 123 ABC television stations in the U.S. alone, and 300 radio stations. Estimates were that 30 million people listened to him each week. He averaged 8 to 10 thousand letters a day. He was familiar to everyone, and everyone was special to him. A young actor asked to use his name, which he allowed. The actor? A young Catholic named Martin Sheen. Yet, he was not above stopping and encouraging a young man at church to continue his vocation to the priesthood just as Father Bergan had encouraged him. He felt his responsibility as a Bishop a serious one. He recalls that St. Paul encouraged those who sought to be Bishops, but also pointed out that Bishops in the days of St. Paul, more often than not, became martyr's. So he was uncomfortable with the present day trappings and privileges of the Bishop. He always kept things in perspective writing, "Bishops are a gift of the Father to the Son. Bishops continue the Mission of Christ. The Lord is not always pleased with us." We doubt that included Bishop Sheen for He had to be so pleased with the dedication, and spirituality of His shepherd-son Fulton for bringing so many into the fold. For Bishop Sheen, his 'family', his 'children' were those entering into religious life. He took this responsibility so seriously that he would not ordain anyone he felt entered the seminary unworthily. Though this, at first, brought him ridicule, it was found later that his instincts were correct.
This became a bone of contention to some when Pope Paul VI made him the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York on October 26, 1966. He had been an active participant at Vatican II, assuring the Council Fathers remained true to the teachings and that if there was to be reform, it would be minimal for he believed that if something's not broken, don't fix it. He truly believed, as we do, that the Church was not broken and did not need fixing. Nevertheless he was obedient to all the Council approved and brought this back to Rochester, but proceeded slowly, not wanting to throw everything at his flock at once. This upset some within the diocese who were impatient and wanted change. In addition, they felt they would get more publicity from this nationally-famous bishop because he was now in their diocese, but rather than shining the light on himself, Bishop Sheen continued to reflect it on Our Lord and His Blessed Mother Mary. Bishop Sheen possessed a tremendous love for Our Lady, something that began at his baptism where he was laid on the altar and dedicated to Mary by his own earthly mother Delia. He nurtured this throughout his seminary days and sixty years as a priest. He gave invaluable input to the Council beforehand on the Blessed Virgin Mary, putting an emphasis on the feminine side of the Church. He wrote, "I wonder if I was the only Conciliar Father who, before the Council, asked that there be a chapter on women. I had a strong conviction that the feminine principle in religion had been neglected. Many world religions were without the feminine principle and we were beginning to live in an age when women were coming into their own. I still feel that it would have been well to have included a chapter on women." We would have to wait nine years after Archbishop Sheen's death when Pope John Paul II would release his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem on the Dignity of Women on August 15, 1988. Bishop Sheen dedicated every one of his books to Our Lady for he was truly in love with her, as he wrote, "The Woman who guides my pen, which falters so with words, in telling of the Word." He never missed stopping at Lourdes whenever he was in Europe, so drawn to Blessed Mary he was that he had to come visit her at her special shrine in France.
When asked how he came up with the subject of his television and radio sermons, he was quick to say, "Holy Hour." The time he spent, alone before the Blessed Sacrament. He joked that when he heard that Pope John Paul II kept a pad and pen next to him during Eucharistic Adoration it came as no surprise since he had done that for a long time. "I have done this all my life - I am sure for the same reason he does, because a lover always works better when the Beloved is with him."
He was always in awe and fear, if that is a good word, of God and of being His priest. For him, to be a priest was a heavy, yet joyous burden; a responsibility he took very seriously. He often wondered how such an unworthy, and unlovable creature as man could dare act in the person of Christ? To offer His most precious Body and Blood to His people on earth? "I know that I am not afraid to appear before Him. And not because I am worthy, nor because I have loved Him with deep intensity, but because He has loved me. That is the only reason that any of us is really lovable. When the Lord puts His love into us, then we become lovable." He would pray intensely before and after every Mass he offered, because of the great honor and responsibility given him in this regard. There were no problems with issues such as celibacy. For him celibacy was a gift of God, begetting children of Christ in Baptism. For him, it was as absurd to say that the gift of celibacy was forced on anyone (which entails sacrifice) as to say Christ was forced on us (which entailed the Sacrifice of the Cross).
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen touched, and continues to touch, so may with his wit and wisdom. He was the clay Christ formed to do His will. A constant 'Ambassador' of Christ's. On October 15, 1969 at the age of 74 he resigned his bishopric in Rochester and devoted the rest of his life to the missions and writing. Rochester still hasn't recovered. He was appointed the Titular Archbishop of Newport. He had preached all over the world in person and through the medium of broadcast and print, lived through nine Popes, and on December 9th, 1979, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was called home. We can think of no better tribute than that written by Archbishop Edward O'Meara: "Dear friend, Archbishop Sheen, we are all better because you were in our midst and were our friend. We trust you to the care of your 'Lovely Lady dressed in blue.' We pray that Jesus has already said, 'I've heard My Mother speak of you.'"
Fulton J. Sheen: gone but not forgotten. How could anyone forget the most beloved orator of our century? God hasn't and neither should we for in Bishop Sheen's words are the essence of all the Church stands for. Long live his memory and his words of wisdom.