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Post-Prosperity II: Why Everybody Watched Bishop Sheen by John Willson

prosperityPost-Prosperity II: Why Everybody Watched Bishop Sheen

by John Willson 

 

Happiness, says the wicked Ambrose Bierce, is an “agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.” (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)  There was so much misery in the world (at least misery that most people could agree was misery) from about 1930-1945 that, if Bierce were correct, one would expect to find more expressions of happiness than leap off the pages and images of post-WWII American culture.

The 1950s, so maligned by ignorant generations who didn’t live it, gave us the best picture of the contradictions the ambiguous idea of prosperity offered the world, perhaps in the history of what we still call Western Civilization.  Progressives hated the decade, being so stupid as not to see what Elvis and Marilyn and Arthur Miller and Tennessee and Marlon–and yes, their anti-hero, Tail Gunner Joe, handed them to take apart politically what the American Century had offered.

We were prosperous in that decade, although most of the fashionable economists–J.K. Galbraith, for example, who got rich telling us we were really poor, tried their best to make us unhappy when we thought we were happy.  They parlayed that into what Robert Frost called “pigging together” in the Great Society of the 1960s, which has ensured the decline of our prosperity.

The irony of all this is that the most popular person on the most visible proof of prosperity, television, was a Catholic Bishop.  America’s Bishop, his biographer Thomas Reeves calls him.  Fulton J. Sheen did “Life Is Worth Living” on the Du Mont network and ABC (in fact he made ABC) from February 12, 1952 until October, 1957 when he “retired” from television at the order of Cardinal Spellman of New York. He won an Emmy as TV’s most outstanding personality in 1952 and was heard by more people than any bishop in history, and watched by more people than “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke.”  The idiots who have so far written histories of the 50s often group him with Norman Vincent Peale’s feelgood version of lukewarm dishwater Christianity, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Bishop Sheen brought Thomas Aquinas to the United States in his 1925 book, God and Intelligence (an astonishing book, a critique of all of modern philosophy from the perspective of a Christian Humanist).  He also devastated “Sigmund Fraud” in  Peace of Soul (1949) and wrote the best book ever written on communism (except perhaps for Whittaker Chambers’ Witness), Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948).  Before TV, he had intellectually marginalized the two great evil ideologies of the twentieth century.

Nor did he on television water things down.  He walked onto a spare set, dressed as a bishop, wrote “JMJ” at the top of a folding blackboard, and talked for twenty-seven minutes (he once said that a successful talk is of whatever length but best wrapped up with a two-minute memorized ending) about things that Americans knew in their hearts were important.  “Why Work Is Boring,” for example; or “Fatigue”; or “How to Talk”; or “Women Who Do Not Fail; or “Teen-Agers.”  He never talked politics, except to dissect the evils of ideology–about one in five of his shows, and he never identified himself as a Catholic.  About 70% of his audience was non-Catholic.  It can be well argued that he killed America’s historic anti-Catholicism with kindness.  I, as a 12-17 year old Episcopalian, rarely missed his broadcasts.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he gave me a pretty good grounding in Thomistic philosophy and an effective inoculation against 60s hedonism at exactly the time I was most receptive to things that teen-agers don’t want to hear.

Continue reading

Fulton Sheen on Palm Sunday

Palm_Sunday

 

Fulton Sheen on Palm Sunday

Posted on April 15, 2011 |
 

“It was the month of Nisan. The Book of Exodus ordered that in this month the Paschal Lamb was to be selected, and four days later was to be taken to the place where it was to be sacrificed. On Palm Sunday, the Lamb was chosen by popular acclaim in Jerusalem; on Good Friday He was sacrificed” (Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ., Ch. 33 p. 272).

Bishop Sheen points out that the request for teh donkey (Luke 19:31) embodies the paradox of the Incarnation: “the LORD has need of it.” God humbled himself to share in our humanity. He who has no need, who is “that greater than which nothing can be imagined” chose to have need. “It is sufficient for those who know Him to hear: ‘The Lord hath need of it’” (Life of Christ, Ch. 33, p. 273).

Until this point, Jesus has always discouraged people’s praise and proclamation, commanding them to silence. On Palm Sunday, for the first time, He encourages their celebration. Even the Pharisees acknowledge the world is turning to Jesus.

“His ‘Hour’ had come. It was time now for Him to make the last public affirmation of His claims. He knew it would lead to Calvary, and His Ascension adn the establishment of His Kingdom on earth. Once He acknowledged their praise, then there were only two courses open to the city: confess Him as did Peter, or crucifiy. Either He was their King, or else they would have no king but Caesar” (Life of Christ, Ch. 33, p. 274). 

Sheen goes on to discuss the prophecy of Zechariah that Jerusalem’s king would come riding on a donkey. Great conquerers always ride on horseback, “sometimes over the prostrate bodies of their foes” (Life of Christ 274). But Christ comes on an ass.

“How Pilate, if he was looking out of his fortress that Sunday, must have been amused by the ridiculous spectacle of a man being proclaimed as a King, and yet seated on the beast that wa sthe symbol of the outcast[. . . .] If He had entered into the city with regal pomp in the manner of conquerors, He would have given occasion to believe He was a political Messias. But the circumstances He chose validated His claim taht His Kingdom was not of this world. There is no suggestion that this pauper King was a rival of Caesar” (Life of Christ, p. 275). 

Conversely, the adoration of the people exceeds that which they might give to a mere King :they give him the adoration of a God.

Discussing the response of Christ to the Pharisees’ complaints (Luke 19:40), Sheen points out, “Stones ar ehard, but if they would cry out, then how much harder must be the hearts of men who woudl not recognize God’s mercy before them” (Life of Christ, p. 276).

Vote Catholic Principles and American Values by Fr. George W. Rutler


FROM THE PASTOR
November 04, 2012
by Fr. George W. Rutler

It was a pleasure recently to perform the marriage rites of two of our fine parishioners at Old St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia, which at the time of the American Revolution was the third-largest city in the British Empire. Members of the Continental Congress attended a celebration of the third anniversary of the Declaration of Independence there in the presence of George Washington himself. The priest chaplain of the French ambassador, Conrad Alexandre Gérard, sang a solemn Te Deum. Catholics were still a small minority in the new country, but the Founding Fathers were well aware that the Catholic Church had been the mother of western civilization before the discovery of the New World.

Washington showed his regard for the Catholic troops at Valley Forge and helped to support a Catholic church in Philadelphia. He kept a devotional image of the Virgin Mary in his dining room at Valley Forge. Generations later, based on inherited information and sentiment, St. Katherine Drexel was certain that he had become a Catholic on his deathbed. While there is no substantial evidence for that, Washington knew that the natural-law theory enshrined in the Declaration of Independence had roots older than the Founding Fathers, and he would not have blanched to hear the names of Augustine and Aquinas among them.   

On October 9, 1774, in Philadelphia, John Adams went church shopping with Washington and attended a service in a “Romish chapel,” which was either St. Joseph’s or St. Mary’s. He described in a letter to his wife Abigail what seemed to him exotic: “. . . the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings and genuflections before the altar.” There was nothing like that in his Puritan world, but he found it all “awful and affecting” —and awful then meant awesome. The sermon was “a good, short moral essay upon the duty of parents to their children, founded in justice and charity, to take care of their interests, temporal and spiritual,” and “the assembly chanted more sweetly and exquisitely.” He wondered how Luther ever “broke the spell.” Adams himself was enough under the spell to donate a generous gift to the building of Holy Cross Church in Boston in 1800. A Protestant friend of his said, “no circumstance has contributed more to the peace and good order of the town, than the establishment of a Catholic Church.”

The peace and good order of our whole nation hang on how we vote. Catholics can keep faith with the Fathers of the Church and the Founding Fathers of our Nation only by voting for those who defend the fundamental right to life and the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

 


 

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Venerable Fulton J. Sheen on Politics

 

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen on Politics

| September 8, 2012 |

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

It’s campaign time again – a season of anxiety. Pro-lifers vote for life; something that trumps all else. Those defending a mother’s right to abort her unborn baby, get downright angry at the thought of candidates minding someone else’s business – the business being the life of a baby. Protecting traditional marriages labels one a hater. Then, the HHS Mandate has become a line in the sand that unites all bishops against politicians that seek to twist Catholic arms of business owners who refuse to minimize mortal sin.

At the core, it’s those who follow their religious convictions pitted against those who say religious beliefs have no place in politics.   Although it would seem to be a more modern argument, it has been around as long as Christianity has been.

Sheen: A Lesson on Politics

Regarding  religion and politics, I was recently taken aback while reading Characters of the Passion (Liguouri/Triumph), a book written by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1947.  He takes a look at the characters that played a role in the Passion of Jesus Christ and relates them to our modern world.  No one today would call 1947 modern, but the lessons of the Passion held true in 1947 and still do today.

In Chapter 3, “Pilate: A Lesson on Political Power”, Sheen disseminated public opinion as it relates to politics.    He stated, “Those who have their finger on the pulse of contemporary civilization have probably noted that there are two contradictory charges against religions today.  The first is that religion is not political enough; the other is that religion is too political.  On the one hand, the Church is blamed for being too divine, and on the other, for not being divine enough.  It is hated because it is too heavenly and hated because it is too earthly.”  Same old, same old.

Sheen portrayed the political/religious process as Jesus stood before the political Pontius Pilate and the religious Annas and Caiaphas.  Christ was accused of being too religious before Anna and Caiaphas.  Under the veil of mock indignation at the supposed insult to God’s majesty, Christ was declared too religious, too concerned with souls, too infallible and too Godly.  After all, they cornered him into declaring Himself to be God.

Sheen writes:

“Because He was too religious, He was not political enough.  The religious judges said that He had no concern for the fact that the Romans were their masters, and that they might take away their country (John 11:47-48). By talking about a spiritual kingdom, a higher moral law, and His divinity, and by becoming the leader of a spiritual crusade, He was accused of being indifferent to the needs of the people and nation’s well being.”

Counter-Church

Likewise, pro-lifers are accused of being too religious.  Who are they to know the mind of God…to know when life really begins? We are accused of trying to force our religion on others, of being fanatics, of being downright dangerous to a free society.

Ultimately, Jesus was sent into the political arena, to Pontius Pilate. There, religious charges would not have prevailed.  So instead, he was accused of being too political. Jesus is charged with meddling in national affairs; that He was not patriotic enough.  “We have found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he is Christ the king” (Luke 23:2).

Sheen explained:

“And so throughout history, these two contradictory charges have been leveled against the Person of Christ in His Body the Church.  His Church was accused of not being political enough when it condemned Nazism and Fascism; it is accused of being too political when it condemns Communism. It is the second charge that needs specific consideration, namely, that the Church is interfering in politics.  Is this true?  It all depends upon what you mean by politics.  If by interference in politics is meant using influence to favor a particular regime, party, or system that respects the basic God–given rights and freedom of persons, the answer is emphatically No! The Church does not interfere in politics.  If by interference in politics is meant judging or condemning a philosophy of life that makes the party or state, or the class, or the race, the source of all rights, and that usurps the soul and enthrones party over conscience and denies those basic rights for which the war was fought, then answer is emphatically Yes! 

“The Church does judge such a philosophy.  But when it does this, it is not interfering with politics, for such politics is no longer politics but theology. When a state sets itself up as absolute as God, when it claims sovereignty over the soul, when it destroys freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, then the state has ceased to be political and has begun to be a counter-Church.” 

It’s the Government that is Trespassing

In reality, the Church adapts itself to government, supporting authority. The Church teaches that the state is supreme in temporal matters.  But when politics make religious proclamations such as women have the right to end the life of their unborn babies – politics enters into the religious realm and claims supremacy over the human soul.  Voting and campaigning against candidates and issues that compete with religion, is not against politics but against a counter-religion.

For all the accusations that fundamentalist Christian and Catholic teaching is dangerous to our free society, the reality is quite the contrary.  Preaching Christianity is sometimes labeled dangerous and incendiary.  For instance, on the issue of homosexuality, the Christian churches are increasingly coming under fire for teaching against homosexual marriages.  Never mind that the teaching advocates loving the sinner but hating the sin; politicians claim that it’s not okay to hate the sin. Any teaching against this sin is more and more being labeled “hate” and said to encourage discrimination.  Christians are not being allowed moral stances that could be viewed as discriminating against a lifestyle.  Such a social straightjacket makes it impossible to teach right and wrong because it will offend the people engaging in the wrong.

As Sheen reminded his reader: “It was Jesus Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate; it was not Pontius Pilate who suffered under Jesus Christ.  The grave danger today is not religion in politics but politics in religion.”

So when politicians preach a counter-religion message such as the HHS Mandate, which is the government forcing Catholic businesses to offer artificial birth control and abortifacients to their employees, our religious leaders have no choice but to protest. Although the politically correct clamor against invasion of the spiritual, if our eyes are open, we will see that the problem is just the opposite – the invasion of the spiritual by the political.

Christ was always and is forever our example.  He did not deliver himself from the power of the state although he ultimately held all power:  “You would have no power unless it were given to you from above,” (John 19:11). But he never stopped preaching and living the truth. The state is often indifferent to God’s moral laws. Still, we must never give in or give up.  We must be willing to bear the marks of Christ as we follow him.

Sheen equated God’s truths with true freedom:

“But whatever be the reason for these trying days, of this we may be certain:  The Christ Who suffered under Pontius Pilate signed Pilate’s death warrant; it was not Pilate who signed Christ’s.  Christ’s Church will be attacked, scorned, and ridiculed, but it will never be destroyed…. The bold fact the enemies of God must face is that modern civilization has conquered the world, but in doing so has lost its soul.  And in losing its soul it will lose the very world it gained. Even our own so-called liberal culture in the United States, which has tried to avoid complete secularization by leaving little zones of individual freedom, is in danger of forgetting that these zones were preserved only because religion was in their soul.  And as religion fades so will freedom, for only where the spirit of God is, is there liberty.”


Patti has been a guest on “EWTN Live” Television program with Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. and twice on EWTN’s “Bookmark” television program with host, Doug Keck, as well as on many Catholic Radio programs around the country. She won the 2011 About.com “Reader’s Choice Award”. Her latest books Big Hearted Families, (Scepter Publishers) and children’s book, “Dear God I don’t get it” (Liguori Publications) will be released in Spring 2013.

To read more visit Patti’s blog and website.

Follow her on on Twitter or Facebook at author page  GPS Guide to Heaven and Earth  Homeschool Heart and Big Hearted Families

The Political and Economic Moral Challenge – Part I

The Political and Economic Moral Challenge – Part I

Some years ago, 1948 I believe it was, there was written a book titled “COMMUNISM and the CONSCIENCE of the WEST”, to which I now take advances from. But not before mentioning the author, well I’ll do that in the end, so as not to leave any verbal alienation for, or from the readers.

“There remains the one standard that has not yet been universally used, namely, the choosing of candidates on moral grounds. A nation always gets the kind of politicians it deserves. When our moral standards are different, our legislation will be different. As long as the decent people refuse to believe that morality must manifest itself in every sphere of human activity, including the political, they will not meet the challenge of Marxism (communism). Contemporary history proves that modern political leaders, devoid of a moral inspiration and relying solely on a mass basis (might makes right), proves ineffectual in time of crisis as did the Kerensky regime and the Weimar politicians. Being the creation of a confused mass group and not primarily defenders of the right, they prove in the end to be only transitional phases in a movement toward a revolutionary regime. The apathy of an electorate to moral leadership is always reflected in the apathy of their politicians. ‘What men do not see is that the fracturing of the spiritual community means the loss of inclusive and unifying moral sanctions over the whole of man’s activities.

The modern world has no cement to bind together personal morals and the morals of political and economic life.’ If a time ever comes when the religious Jews, Protestants and Catholics have to suffer under a totalitarian state denying them the right to worship God according to the light of their conscience, it will be because for years they thought it made no difference what kind of people represented them in Congress, and because they never opposed the spiritual truth to the materialist lie.”

Although, I would take a personal exception and insert the “Obama regime” and/or the “Bush regime”, the big ‘R’ and big big “D” parties, as current proofs and for violations of moral conscience, particularly as they had to do with the creation of stimulus and TARP programs. And I may even mention that in this time we have few defenders of right, present company excluded, of course. And to the question of electorate apathy, I would say more of a mass conversion and duplicity than apathy in, again a causality from our not-so-free and immoral press. I don’t know how one creates a moral press perhaps affiliate with America’s Partynews, is a good start.

Fulton Sheen goes on; Awh! I just gave it away.

“Woe is me,..” (1Corinthians 9:16) and woe unto us, if the believing element in our country does not allow its belief in God and morality to seep deep down into the action in the polling booths. The first effective campaign against full blown communism is to wage war against our temptation to abandon the spiritual in the realm of the political. Nothing can do men of good will more harm than apparent compromises with parties that subscribe to anti-moral and anti-democratic and anti-God forces. We must have the courage to detach our support from men (and women) who are doing evil. We must bear them no hatred, but we must break with them.”

So I put it to you, as has the founders of this party and specifically Alan Keyes; The Political and Economic Challenges facing us today and into the tomorrows “God willing” is nothing if we don’t address the moral problems first. First things first, are our moral obligations. To God,.. To Family,.. and To Country.

Posted by G.C. Stevenson

The True Stardom of Fulton Sheen: William Doino Jr

William Doino Jr.
 
The name of Fulton J. Sheen brings to mind many things: “the Golden Age of Catholicism” . . . the stirring sermons . . . the amusing stories and dramatic conversions. . . the black cassock and red cape . . . the glistening pectoral cross . . . the angel cleaning the blackboard . . . and the  signature sign-off to his Life is Worth Livingtelevision shows: “God love you!”And now, a new description can be added to the list: a saint-in-waiting.On June 28, Pope Benedict officially recognized Archbishop Sheen as someone who had lived a life of “heroic virtue,” and declared him “Venerable.” The devout priest from Peoria who became the first televangelist, commanded a weekly audience of 30 million, and appeared on the cover of Time, is now just one step away from beatification, and a second from sainthood, pending two respective miracles. The Vatican is already studying the case of a stillborn child who—having shown no vital signs for 60 minutes—astonishingly came back to life, after his mother prayed for the Archbishop’s intercession.

The advance of Sheen’s cause has elated his many supporters, especially three priests who’ve had a special devotion to it.

Monsignor Hilary Franco, who served as the Archbishop’s assistant when he headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in America—and is the only surviving member of his New York household—told me how thankful he was for the announcement: “I am a living witness to Archbishop Sheen’s holiness.”

Despite all the acclaim he received, Sheen strived to maintain “the simplicity of a dedicated parish priest,” said Monsignor. For Sheen, the priesthood was a precious gift that needed to be nourished through continual prayer. Every day, no matter where he was, even if traveling abroad, he made it a point to spend one hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It kept his mind constantly on the divine, and fortified his work.

Archbishop Sheen’s generosity was legendary. Apart from donating his own earnings to the Church, he raised enormous sums of money for the poor, the missions, and additional works of mercy. He brought famous celebrities into the Church, but brought far more unknowns into it, who were famous “in the eyes of God.” His private acts of charity were never publicized, but flowed from the heart of a servant. Monsignor Franco revealed how the Archbishop rescued a man named Victor from the streets:

He had suffered from leprosy and was so  badly deformed he was afraid to show himself during the day. When Archbishop Sheen discovered Victor’s desperate condition, he immediately saw to it that he was cared for, given proper medical attention, and invited him to dine with us every Friday night. He embraced Victor’s full human dignity and treated him as a member of his own family.

Father Andrew Apostoli, the Vice-Postulator of the Archbishop’s cause, seconds Monsignor Franco’s testimony, adding. “I remember watching Archbishop Sheen myself as a young boy, at my grandfather’s promptings, and being so inspired by his teachings. There was no one else like him. He became a hero, and influenced my decision to enter religious life . . . though I never thought I’d actually meet him.”

Father Apostoli not only met the Archbishop, but—through a providential series of events—was ordained by him in 1967, an event he remembers vividly. “At my ordination, Archbishop Sheen spoke prophetically about the critical importance of the clergy, saying: ‘If there is a key to the reform of the Church and the salvation of the world it lies in the renewal of the priesthood.’”

Msgr. Stanley Deptula, the executive director of the Archbishop Sheen Foundation, never got the opportunity to meet Sheen, but he feels as if he did, and he is not alone. “The letters we receive from both clergy and laity show what a profound impact Archbishop Sheen has had upon the Church. His books and recordings speak to people today, as much as they ever did.” Msgr. Franco adds: “And not just in America, but throughout the world, and among many non-Catholics, too.’

All three men stressed how important Sheen’s witness was for them as Catholic priests, calling special attention to his book, The Priest is Not His Own. “I am convinced this book is a spiritual classic, and defines the missions of priests like no other,” says Msgr. Deptula. One passage, in particular, gives a hint as to why the Archbishop was so committed to his daily holy hour:

The only defense against acedia, against the tragic loss of divine reality, is a daily renewal of faith in Christ. The priest who has not kept near the fires of the tabernacle can strike no sparks from the pulpit.

What Archbishop Sheen did for the clergy he expanded for the laity. In books like God and IntelligenceOld Errors and New LabelsThe Cross and the CrisisCommunism and the Conscience of the WestPeace of SoulThe World’s First LoveThree to Get Married, and The Life of Christ, he showed what Christianity meant for the contemporary world, and how to protect and extend it when it came under attack.

Long before the new atheists appeared, Sheen exposed their faulty premises and answered their supposed logic. He denounced the evils of Communism, but knew denunciation was never enough, and so fought for an ethic of peace and social justice. He condemned racism and anti-Semitism, and spoke out against the Vietnam War—not because he had softened his views against Communism (far from it), but because of his commitment to just-war principles, and out of conscience. He inveighed against the “false compassion” of certain psychologists, and said the only way to redemption was by acknowledging sin and personal responsibility. He was a champion of Vatican II and Catholic tradition, embodying that vital center of Catholic orthodoxy which represents the Church at its best.

None of which is to say the now-Venerable Archbishop lived an impeccable or tension-free life. Like all the saints (save only the Blessed Virgin), he was an extraordinary but imperfect vessel of God’s grace. He had a lifelong struggle with vanity, which he candidly admitted in his autobiography; had well-known battles with Cardinal Spellman; and his time as the bishop of Rochester (1966-1969) was anything but serene: after just three years of service, he retired.

But it is precisely during the last ten years of his life, mostly off-camera and during serious illness, when the Archbishop reached a new level of holiness. He overcame his temptations toward vanity, said no harsh words against Cardinal Spellman (whom many believe mistreated Sheen), and expressed nothing but admiration for the people of Rochester, even though not everyone there had been open to his dynamic orthodoxy.

In 1979, shortly before he died, Blessed John Paul II embraced a frail but joyful Archbishop Sheen on the altars of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and commended him for his tremendous faith and work, “You have been a loyal son of the Church!” Overwhelmed, Sheen broke into tears.

Fr. Andrew Small, successor to Archbishop Sheen as the current head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, told Vatican Radio that this moving encounter has tremendous symbolic meaning “because Sheen had known suffering in his life. He had known rejection, he had known pain; he had known exile to some extent when he left New York and went to Rochester.” Learning about his crosses, encouraged others to persevere with theirs.

This was the true stardom of Fulton Sheen: his burning love for Christ, his incredible devotion to the Church, and his boundless love for people, whom he gave so much to, and who are still benefiting from his magnificent gifts.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
RESOURCES

Archbishop Fulton Sheen Beatification Could Come Very Quickly,” Catholic News Agency, June 30, 2012.

Ad gentes: Joseph Ratzinger and Fulton Sheen,” Vatican Radio, July 11, 2012.

Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen (Image, 1982).

America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen by Thomas C. Reeves (Encounter Books, 2001).

Fulton J. Sheen: An American Catholic Response to the Twentieth Century by Kathleen L. Riley (Alba House, 2003).

The Spiritual Legacy of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen by Charles P. Connor (Alba House, 2009).

Archbishopsheencause.org, official website of the  Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation.

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Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Catholic Media’s Greatest Star

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Catholic Media’s Greatest Star

THOMAS REEVES

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.

Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979)


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 postdoctorate 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.

A model for the American church

If Sheen wasn’t the holiest priest in the American Church (he harbored a few secrets, and his ambition, vanity, and luxurious lifestyle embarrassed him in his old age), there were surely few, at least among the Church’s intellectuals, who tried harder to be a model for others. Few colleagues surpassed his tenacious efforts, over such a long period, to adhere to Church teachings. His soul and mind rested on Church authority rather than the fads of his particular time and place. That trust, plus a rigorous prayer life, generated a peace and joy that influenced almost everyone who knew, met, saw, or heard Fulton J. Sheen.

Although he was a major figure in the Church by the early 1930s and lived until 1979, Sheen is primarily remembered as a man who helped set the tone of the 1950s. In April 1952, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was lionized as “perhaps the most famous preacher in the U.S., certainly America’s best-known Roman Catholic priest, and the newest star of U.S. television.” A spokesperson for the archdiocese of New York exclaimed, “He’s telegenic. He’s wonderful. The gestures, the timing, the voice. If he came out in a barrel and read the telephone book, they’d love him.”

The Time article provided biographical data, emphasizing the bishop’s humble background in rural and small-town Illinois. It commented on his many publications, sniffing slightly that the most popular books, such as Peace of Soul and Lift Up Your Heart, “were designed for the middle-brow reader.” It presented photographs of his most prominent converts: automobile magnate Henry Ford II, leftist writer Heywood Broun, author Clare Boothe Luce (wife of Time owner Henry Luce), former communist editor Louis Budenz, and famed violinist Fritz Kreisler. And it presented excerpts from his writings, such as: “America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos…. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot: but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broad minded.”

This celebration of religious certainty that characterized Sheen, and much of the 1950s in this country, has been responsible in part for his neglect at the hands of more recent historians and journalists. Especially since the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, it has become decidedly unfashionable in intellectual circles to talk about objective moral standards or to assert that one religion or denomination might be superior to another. Ideas have consequences: In recent years religion itself has been virtually banished from public education and rendered nearly invisible in the media (except, of course, reports on clerical malefactions).

The Catholic Church has been a major target of this animus; anti-Catholicism, often called the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals, has flourished in an age led by spiritual and moral relativists. Crisis’s own Deal W. Hudson has observed, “The Church attracts hatred because its very existence proclaims an Absolute standard to all.” A University of Michigan historian noted in 1993 that “the sexual politics of the past twenty years have kept alive — indeed, helped legitimize — the anti-Catholic bias that has long been part of academic life.”

Tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, and reigning ideologies of the politically correct assume that one view of reality, as long as it isn’t conservative or supernatural, is as good as another. Sheen and others like him are often dismissed as mere relics of an unenlightened past that is best ignored. In American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church, liberal writer Charles R. Morris uses Sheen to symbolize the “Church’s triumphal era in America,” a short-lived and backward period known principally for its “extraordinary ideological self-confidence,” Mariolatry, and “the Church’s obsessive anticommunism.”

Sheen’s staunch and well-known anticommunism stance undoubtedly contributes to his lack of appeal for many modern intellectuals. A few examples could include: Donald F. Crosby’s God, Church, and Flag: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Catholic Church, 1950-1957, wherein he devotes a page to Sheen, noting that he “poured forth a gushing stream of books, articles, pamphlets, sermons, and speeches” attacking the theory and dynamics of communism and emphasizing its opposition to Roman Catholicism. David Caute, in The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower, observes that Sheen “played the leading role” in courting excommunist informers into the Church. Richard Gid Powers, in Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism, notes Sheen’s radio sermons attacking communism and cites an anticommunist speech he gave before the American Legion’s All-American Conference in 1950.

Still, each of these books reveals only a superficial knowledge of Sheen, largely gleaned from newspapers.

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.

Piecing together his past

Until now, there has been no full-scale biography of Fulton J. Sheen. The two most widely quoted books on him, Missionary with a Mike and The Passion of Fulton Sheen, are extremely similar to each other and were written by a disgruntled priest, D.P. Noonan, who was one of the very few people Sheen ever fired. Both books contain useful insights but are sometimes misleading and unreliable. Amazingly, only a single, unpublished doctoral dissertation has been written by a historian.

Treatment of Sheen has been all too shallow. He is mentioned, for example, only once in David J. O’Brien’s American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years, and it is in a condescending sentence linked with the extremist Fr. Charles Coughlin. In William M. Halsey’s The Survival of American Innocence: Catholicism in an Era of Disillusionment, 1920-1940, Sheen is simply dismissed as “the Catholic counterpart of Norman Vince Peale and Billy Graham,” while his Thomism is rejected as “a vehicle for domination.”

One would think that Catholic scholars today might pay more attention to the good archbishop. University of Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan in The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present calls Sheen, in a brief paragraph, a “true Catholic hero” for his achievements in the media. But the sole source cited for his comments on Sheen is an obituary from a Rochester, New York, newspaper! Similar examples are difficult to find. This may be an example of how Catholic academics have internalized the anti-Catholicism of the mainstream intellectual culture.

College textbooks also slight Sheen. John A. Garraty’s extremely popular The American Nation doesn’t mention him. Dewey W. Gratham in his work Recent America: The United States Since 1945 cited Sheen only once. His book Peace of Soul is linked with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and both are relegated to the “cult of reassurance” and the “peace of mind” religion of the postwar years.

Sheen did not make the historian’s task easy. He apparently destroyed virtually all of the letters that passed across his desk in the course of his lengthy career. In 1976, he approved the creation of a Sheen archive in the Diocese of Rochester and agreed to donate his huge personal library, collections of newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. But after his death, Rochester authorities discovered that only a handful of letters survived. The files of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith yielded next to nothing, and the archives of the Catholic University of America, where he taught for almost a quarter century, offered little more. The Diocese of Peoria, the Archdiocese of New York, and the Diocese of Rochester, places closely identified with Sheen, possessed surprisingly little.

This attitude toward his correspondence is puzzling. He did not give many interviews, and it may be that he simply cherished his privacy. In 1946, he told reporter Kenneth Stewart that he would prefer not to have a story written about him, dismissing publicity as “artificial as rouge on the cheek. Doing the job is the important thing, even if you’re a street cleaner.” Still, he had nearly finished an autobiography when death came to call. And he had agreed to donate, at his death, the potentially explosive details of a dark secret: his private correspondence with Cardinal Spellman, with whom he had endured a decade of intense, although unpublicized, feuding. That the documents wound up elsewhere was not Sheen’s fault.

Perhaps the solution to the puzzle is simply that in the course of a very busy life filled with travel and moving personal belongings from residence to residence, he lacked the inclination to carry about an enormous number of letters. How enormous? In 1946 alone, he was writing between 150 and 200 letters a day. In the early 1950s, according to Sheen, the television show was generating between 15,000 and 25,000 letters per day, and he tried to answer as many as his schedule allowed.

It may be that he never preserved his correspondence. Matthew Paratore, a friend who knew him in the 1960s and 1970s, noted that Sheen was not at all interested in his past. He did not act like an old man and was not given to reminiscence. He wanted at all times to be current — to read the latest books and articles, to be youthful and relevant. In any case, Sheen letters and documents are to be found in a wide assortment of other manuscript collections. Scores of people who knew him have been willing, often eager, to speak for the record and his relatives have been extremely cooperative. They preserve an abundance of photographs and documents, along with their recollections.

An enduring treasure

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.

In recent years, steps have been taken to beatify the archbishop. On the 20th anniversary of Sheen’s death, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York formally initiated the lengthy process. The Church will do well to give the cause serious scrutiny. Saint or not, here was an American Catholic in whom we can all take pride, a man who made — and continues to make — an enormous difference in the lives of millions.

 

Works by Fulton J. Sheen

God and Intelligence, 1925 Philosophy of Religion, 1948
Religion Without God, 1928 Peace of Soul, 1949
The Life of All Living, 1929 Rev. Ed. 1979 Lift Up Your Heart, 1950
The Divine Romance, 1930 Three to Get Married, 1951
Old Errors and New Labels, 1931 The World’s First Love, 1952
Moods and Truths, 1932 Life Is Worth Living, Vol. 1, 1953
Way of the Cross, 1932 Life Is Worth Living, Vol. 2, 1954
Seven Last Words, 1933 The Life of Christ, 1954
Hymn of the Conquered, 1933 Way to Happiness, 1954
The Eternal Galilean, 1934 Way to Inner Peace, 1954
Philosophy of Science, 1934 God Loves You, 1955
The Mystical Body of Christ, 1935 Thinking Life Through, 1955
Calvary and the Mass, 1936 Thoughts for Daily Living, 1955
The Moral Universe, 1936 Life Is Worth Living, Vol. 3, 1955
The Cross and the Beatitudes, 1937 Life Is Worth Living, Vol. 4, 1956
The Cross and the Crisis, 1938 Life Is Worth Living, Vol. 5, 1957
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, 1938 Life of Christ, 1958; Rev. Ed. 1977
The Rainbow of Sorrow, 1938 This Is The Mass, 1958; Rev. Ed. 1965
Victory over Vice, 1939 This Is Rome, 1960
Whence Come Wars, 1940 Go to Heaven, 1960
The Seven Virtues, 1940 This Is the Holy Land, 1961
For God and Country, 1941 These Are the Sacraments, 1962
A Declaration of Dependence, 1941 The Priest Is Not His Own, 1963
God and War and Peace, 1942 Missions and the World Crisis, 1964
The Divine Verdict, 1943 The Power of Love, 1965
The Armor of God, 1943 Walk with God, 1965
Philosophies at War, 1943 Christmas Inspirations, 1966
Seven Words to the Cross, 1944 Footprints in a Darkened Forest, 1966
Seven Pillars of Peace, 1944 Guide to Contentment, 1967
Love One Another, 1944 Easter Inspirations, 1967
Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, 1945 Those Mysterious Priests, 1974
Preface to Religion, 1946 Life Is Worth Living, First and Second Series Abridged,
Characters of the Passion, 1946 1978 Treasure in Clay, 1980
Jesus, Son of Mary, 1947  
Communism and the Conscience of the West, 1948

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Reeves, Dr Thomas. “The Catholic Media’s Greatest Star” Crisis(March 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisismagazine call 1-800-852-9962.

 

THE AUTHOR

Thomas C. Reeves is a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the author of several books, including A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, The Empty Church : Does Organized Religion Matter Anymore and America’s Bishop, the biography of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Copyright © 2000 Crisis

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