Pioneer magazine

Pastor of Millions

An immaculately dressed man in clerical attire strode down the street. When he met a young boy ambling along, he asked the boy why he was not at school.

The man’s engaging smile gave the child confidence to confide in the priest. “I was thrown out,” the boy replied. “The reverend Mother threw me out because “I’ll get you back in,” the priest told the boy. The priest was Fr Fulton Sheen, one of the most charismatic and influential Catholic priests in the United States in the twentieth century. He went to see the reverend mother and pointed out to her that three other boys had been thrown out of school for misbehaving – Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. If they had been allowed to continue in school, the world might have been spared much suffering. The boy was allowed back into school and eventually became a missionary priest.

Fulton Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois in 1895. He was the eldest of four sons. He was christened Peter John, but took Fulton from his mother’s maiden name. Both maternal grandparents had emigrated from Croghan, County Roscommon, and his father, a farmer, was also of Irish descent. In early childhood, Fulton contracted tuberculosis, but made a quick recovery.

The family was very religious and, from early on, it was assumed that Fulton was destined for
the priesthood. Having gone through primary and secondary schools, he entered a seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. He was ordained in 1919, and went on to the Catholic University of America for post-graduate studies. He left this university having been conferred with a doctorate in philosophy, and went to the famous university in Louvain in Belgium for further study. Here, he again graduated with a doctorate in philosophy and was given the opportunity to study for the highest degree available in the university, which he passed with distinction. He was ready for further study, but his bishop was afraid that such success might make the young priest proud. He called him home and sent him to minister as a curate in a run-down parish in Peoria. Sheen couldn’t be kept down. Soon, the parish church was so packed for his sermons that the priests in adjoining parishes forbade their flock to attend his ceremonies.

Missionary Travels
After a year’s parish work, Fr Sheen was appointed to the faculty of philosophy in the Catholic University of America where he eventually was made Professor of Philosophy. By preaching in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, and Westminster Cathedral in London, he became very well known. For fifteen years, he was National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

He travelled extensively supporting missionaries and collecting money. At this time, Cardinal Spellman was quoted as saying, ‘Sheen is doing more than any archbishop or bishop in America to make the faith known and loved.’ In 1951, Sheen was consecrated bishop. Sheen was a brilliant communicator. From 1930, he broadcast his ‘Catholic Hour’ on radio to an audience of four-million listeners. The public responded with sixthousand letters weekly. Then came television. From 1951, ‘Life is Worth Living’ went out on 123 television stations and attracted thirtymillion viewers. He received many awards for his radio and television programmes. When he was accepting an Emmy Award for being ‘The Most Outstanding Television Personality’, he said, “I feel it is time to pay tribute to my four writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

Bishop Sheen attributed his great energy in spreading the Gospel to the fact that, on the day he was ordained, he made a promise that he would do a Holy Hour every day. He kept that promise for sixty years. Tapes of his Holy Hour’ were instrumental in bringing many back to the faith. Asked how he got his idea of spending an hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament every day, he said it was due to a story he heard about an event involving a young Chinese girl:- In China, during a revolution in the early years of the twentieth century, soldiers entered a church and scattered thirty-two Hosts onto the floor. The parish priest saw what was happening, and entered the church, whereupon he was attached. A young girl in the church witnessed the attack, but was not noticed by the soldiers. Later that night, the priest saw the girl return to the church, spend an hour praying and, before leaving, she took one of the Hosts from the floor into her mouth. Every night after, she returned to the church, prayed for an hour and took another Host until she had taken the last Host. Unfortunately, on that last night, she made some noise in the church, which made a nearby soldier aware of her presence. He attacked her and beat her to death.

Instruction and Conversions
Many sought Sheen out for instruction in the Faith. His classes in New York and Washington attracted many interested in joining the Church. When Pope Pius XII asked him how many converts he had made, he replied, “I am always afraid that if I did count them I might think that I made them instead of the Lord.” In his autobiography, Bishop Sheen records some amazing conversions. Louis Budenz was the editor of the Communist Daily Worker, and attacked Sheen in his paper. Sheen had made a detailed study of the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, and published a pamphlet rebutting Budenz’s attack. Six years later, Budenz came to Sheen for instruction and was received into the Church. Similarly, he instructed and baptised Bella Dodd, who had been a lawyer for the Communist Party. Others introduced into the Church by Sheen included Henry Ford II, publisher Clare Booth Luce and the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler, but it was the thousands and thousands of ordinary men and women converted by Sheen that really made him happy. In public debates, he was a quick thinker and polished communicator. He was renowned for his beautiful speaking voice and his penetrating eyes. Once, when giving a lecture, he was asked how Jonah got into the belly of the whale. He replied that he did not know, but that he would ask Jonah when he got to heaven. “But suppose Jonah is not there?” the questioner persisted. “Well, then, you can ask him yourself,” Sheen replied.

In 1966, he was appointed Bishop in the diocese of Rochester, New York. He retained this position until his resignation in 1969 at the age of seventy-five. Apart from radio and television, he was very active in communicating through the written word. He wrote seventy-one books and also contributed numerous articles and syndicated columns to newspapers.

During the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Sheen was appointed to the Commission for the  Missions and made many contributions. He had a great love of the Virgin Mary and celebrated Mass every Saturday in her honour. He believed that the major religions of the world suffered because of the absence of the feminine in them. He suggested that there should be a chapter on ‘Women in the church’ at the Council, but was not successful in having it included. Towards the end of his life, Archbishop Fulton Sheen had open-heart surgery. He died on 9 December, 1979. Two months earlier, when Pope John Paul II met Sheen in New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, he had embraced him and told him, “You have written and spoken well of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.”