While his cause is stalled: Remembering Bishop Fulton Sheen

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 07, 2014

The cause for beatification of the Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen is on hold because of a dispute over Sheen’s body between the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. Born in 1895, Sheen was ordained for the Diocese of Peoria in 1919, and it is Peoria that has taken charge of his cause. But he was elevated to the episcopate as an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of New York, and his body is buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Bishop Sheen’s cause had made considerable progress before it was stalled last month by New York’s refusal to release the body for close examination and the collection of relics in Peoria. Opened in 2002, the diocesan phase of the cause was completed and everything was sent to Rome in 2009. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Sheen to have possessed heroic virtue, hence naming him “Venerable”. In June of 2014, the theological panel which serves the Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced that a miracle attributed to Sheen’s intercession had been approved.

For all of these reasons, now is an excellent time to become more familiar with the man who has been called the first televangelist, and who was undoubtedly the most widely-recognized bishop in the world in the mid-20th century. There are many ways to do this. For example, Sheen’s old television programs are regularly available on EWTN. Or one can dip into any of Sheen’s seventy-three books, covering various popular topics in philosophy, theology and spirituality. Certainly it makes good sense to read the Archbishop’s own autobiography, Treasure in Clay, which he worked on almost until the day he died on December 9, 1979.

Another Source

Or you could read the memoir entitled Bishop Sheen, Mentor and Friend by Msgr. Hilary C. Franco, who served as Sheen’s secretary in his work as national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and as his peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Franco assisted Sheen from 1959 until the bishop took over the Diocese of Rochester, New York in 1966. The two men became very close, and they remained in touch until Sheen’s death.

Before going on to consider Franco’s book, I should probably mention two little-known facts about the identity of Bishop Fulton Sheen. The first is that when he retired from Rochester in 1969, Pope Paul VI named him Archbishop of the titular see of Newport, Wales, giving him a base from which to continue his impressive ministry of evangelization. But as a media personality he has always been known as “Bishop”. The second is that his real name was Peter John Sheen, but he always went by his mother’s maiden name, which was Fulton.

In any case, Msgr. Franco admired Bishop Sheen as a teenager in the early 1950s and worked closely with him as a young priest. He then enjoyed a significant ecclesiastical career in his own right in New York, Washington, and Rome, but he regards the bishop as his mentor, and remembers him with extraordinary fondness.

Mission and Council

Franco’s direct collaboration with Sheen included the height of the latter’s influence over the mission work of the Church through the Propagation of the Faith. Sheen raised over a hundred million dollars for the missions, partly by donating his own media earnings, which alone totaled about ten million. He also exercised significant control over expenditures, and in this work the two traveled widely, visiting many mission areas.

Thus Msgr. Franco is able to relate many experiences which show the bishop’s extraordinary concern for those who are both spiritually and materially poor. I found one in particular very revealing. Sheen and Franco were visiting a leper colony in Thailand, and the bishop was talking with the lepers. Here is Franco’s account:

I watch the Bishop as he gives them rosary beads, pressing what remains of their hands around the beads. He will confide to me later on that at the beginning of the visit he was “dropping” the rosary beads into those hands, but then he felt guilty and starting “pressing” the beads into their hands.

During this same period, Bishop Sheen had to prepare for and attend the Second Vatican Council. Franco served him as secretary, coordinator, theological advisor and translator, putting him in a good position to discuss Bishop Sheen’s ideas about various conciliar issues. It seems that Sheen was eager to help the Church break out of insular patterns of clerical self-satisfaction, emphasizing the missionary identity of the Church to the whole world, but he was unalterably opposed to all attempts to refashion Magisterial teachings to accommodate secular errors.

For him, mission and accommodation were radically different things. For example, he welcomed the efforts of the Council to embrace the laity in general and women in particular in the fullness of their baptismal responsibilities, as real workers in the vineyard, but resisted various efforts to ordain women or downgrade the importance of the priesthood.

Eventually Bishop Sheen was assigned leadership of the Diocese of Rochester. There was a strong rumor that Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York deliberately got rid of Sheen by shipping him to Rochester. It is certainly true that the Cardinal clashed sharply with Sheen over the use of monies for the Propagation of the Faith, and that Sheen was adamant about retaining these monies exclusively for the missions.

Remember that Sheen also served as an auxiliary to Spellman. Nonetheless, in a showdown before Pope Paul himself, the Pope sided with Sheen. Hence the rumor that Spellman was determined to diminish Sheen’s influence in the Church as a whole, and so got him removed from his work for the missions.

This account of the matter is given, for example, in Raymond Arroyo’s introduction to Sheen’s autobiography. But Msgr. Franco believes it to be false, and explains how strongly Bishop Sheen had come to yearn for a particular diocesan flock of his own, for people he could come to know personally.

The Church Worldly

Bishop Sheen, Mentor and Friend is divided into two parts, the second of which consists of a long interview of Msgr. Franco by pro-life attorney T. Patrick Monaghan, emphasizing Franco’s recollections of Bishop Sheen from 1967 until his death in 1979. During this period, the two were largely occupied by separate responsibilities. The interview is especially poignant in that it records Sheen’s distress in attempting to counter the rapid secularization which afflicted the Church beginning with widespread misinterpretations of the Council.

The following examples are drawn from Sheen’s correspondence with Franco:

On secularization in the Church generally, and especially the collapse of women religious in the United States, Sheen wrote:

The spiritual life in our times begins with a ‘No’ to the world. The Russian Christians were tested with Communism, the Germans with Nazism and the rest of us with Secularism. Only those who have already said ‘Yes’ to the Transcendent have the power to say ‘NO’. The authorities in the early centuries were not escapists. They were warriors. They went out to the desert to confront the Devil and to say ‘No’ to him. People today are so hungry for bread and we are giving them Rice Krispies with crackle.

On diminishing reverence for the Eucharist, decline in the Sacrament of Confession, and the loss of the sense of sin (including the practice of First Communion before First Confession), he lamented: “What is basic is the denial of guilt. Everyone today is immaculately conceived. There are no penitents, only patients.”

During the American bishops’ discussions of Communion in the hand, he insisted: “This concentration on a non-essential—while priests leave and nuns secularize and catechetics declines—will not win heaven’s smile.”

And when asked about the growing political preoccupation of the United States Episcopal Conference, Bishop Sheen characterized it as focusing on the “outside of the cup, not the inside.”

In fact, Bishop Sheen apparently saw the root of the problem of the secularization of the Church in the bishops themselves. First, speaking again of the collapse of religious life, Msgr. Franco reports: “He was frustrated that more was not being done, writing that every bishop was waiting for every other bishop to do something, and all were waiting for the Holy Father.” And more generally:

In 1970, he confided to me a deep concern about the future. At the heart of his concern were his fellow bishops. He saw the weaknesses of a good number of bishops, weaknesses which undermined their authority as successors of Christ’s apostles. At this critical time, he found bishops who were avoiding problems and difficult decisions, delegating their authority to others, failing to teach and discipline, listening to bad advisors, and demonstrating apathy. “So many are afraid of being unloved,” he told me.

Bishop Fulton Sheen, in contrast, was secure in the love of Christ. Msgr. Hilary Franco is certain that the great bishop, who made a holy hour each and every day and encouraged all he counseled to do the same, had but one motive: To share that love with others, building up the Body of Christ, beginning with those most in need of His mercy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 08, 2014 6:27 PM ET USA

    We have to be very careful with our comments, especially in repeating rumors or suppositions, which can easily be forms of gossip, detraction or calumny. New York has stated that one of the main problems involves the wishes of Bishop Sheen's closest surviving relatives with regard to the disposition of the body. It does not hurt the Church to go slowly and carefully in working out such difficulties.

  • Posted by: Petronius - Oct. 08, 2014 6:18 PM ET USA

    Why can't Peoria and New York work this out ? It's this kind of petty scandal that damages the Church unnecessarily.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Oct. 08, 2014 6:54 AM ET USA

    So, "Bishop Sheen’s cause had made considerable progress before it was stalled last month by New York’s refusal to release the body for close examination...." Cynics say that the reason for "New York's refusal" is the chasm between Bishop Sheen's outlook and Cardinal Dolan's. Cardinal Dolan, who will lead a St. Patrick's day parade that includes an openly homosexual contingent, is apparently not the kind of man who agrees that "The spiritual life in our times begins with a ‘No’ to the world."