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Fulton Sheen understood how Sacraments could transform our lives

Catholic should learn more about the television evangelist, now a venerable

By on Friday, 6 July 2012

Vatican Saints

An item of very good news: the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen of New York and Rochester, who died in 1979 aged 84, has now been declared “Venerable.” This is the first step on the road to sainthood; a properly verified miracle that has occurred through his intercession will now be needed for him to reach the next stage, beatification.

For those who have not heard of Fulton Sheen he is best known for his work in America in the 1950s and 1960s as a “television evangelist”. Millions of Americans, Catholics and those of other faiths or none, watched his weekly half-hour television series, “Life is Worth Living”, broadcast between 1952 and 1957, and learned from his lucid yet passionate presentations what the Catholic faith really teaches. He understood, as few people in the Church grasped in those days, the enormous potential power of the visual media and how it could be harnessed to the spread of the Faith.

The CTS provides a useful and informative booklet about him: “Fulton Sheen: Evangelist of the modern age”, by Louise Merrie, for £1.95. It is worth reading in order to know more about the life of this great priest and bishop, and to pray for Sheen’s eventual canonisation. Reading it, I was intrigued to learn that as a young priest in the 1930s, he spent several summers assisting as a curate at St Patrick’s, Soho Square in London. This parish, now under the energetic leadership of Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, about whom I have blogged recently, is itself a beacon of evangelisation for the modern age. Perhaps the inspiring example of Archbishop Sheen still lingers on in Soho?

Sheen knew the Sacraments can truly transform people’s lives. There are many stories of him encouraging long-time sinners to return to the faith by going to Confession. Indeed, it is related that once, when talking inside a church to an unhappy woman who was telling him it was far too late to change her sinful ways, he gently propelled her into a confessional as they were passing it in the aisle and heard her confession there and then. There was a time when, especially in the States, psychologists thought that the technique of psychoanalysis could replace the Sacrament of Confession. Sheen would point out that in Confession one humbly asks forgiveness for sins and thus opens oneself to change and renewal by grace; there is no long drawn-out analysis involved which can often lead to a dependency on the analyst, with zero or little prospect for change (especially, I should add, as a monetary transaction is involved).

The CTS booklet relates that Sheen “always accepted and taught the Church’s teachings with humility. Indeed, he was critical of those who wanted the teachings to change.” What an example this gives to our own times, when so many Catholics openly question and criticise Church teachings. What would Sheen have made of public teachers and lecturers like Hans Kung, whom William Oddie has rightly “named and shamed” in his last blog?

I also learned from the booklet that after abortion was legalised Sheen encouraged people to “adopt” spiritually an unborn baby in danger of abortion and to pray for that baby’s protection for nine months, until birth. He was a fine example of what a priest and bishop should be; let’s pray for his canonisation so that he will continue to be an influence for good on future generations.

  • JessicaHof

    My American Catholic friends still remember him with gratitude and love. He seems to have been a remarkable man. Some of his talks can be found on YouTube – takes us back to a gentler age.

  • Nat_ons

    A venerable soul, a wonderful witness to Christ and a great Servant of God, not least in any of his gloriously annoying little human foibles. Fulton Sheen is a wonderful doctor for the church .. teacher, healer, listener, comedian – a tonic for what ails the world at any time. Thank the good Lord for recording technology (even of the cranky-old, scratchy-old, grey-scale type .. much like myself only far better preserved); for while it is instructive and pleasing to read his words – hearing him (even after all this time, or perhaps for the first time) always seems to cut to the very quick .. as often as not with insightful humour.

  • theroadmaster

    Cardinal Sheen was an unflinching supporter of Church orthodoxies, regarding doctrinal faith and morals.  He used his charismatic gifts to great effect, through television and radio, to disseminate the Christian message to many millions throughout the US and beyond.  He understood how to use language to it’s fullest potential,in order to carry the meanings inherent in his sermons/talks directly to his audiences and listenership, without the media getting in the way.  His television and radio programmes still resonate today in an age of spiritual decline in the western nations.  He should be a great inspiration for Catholic evangelists of today, who are undertaking the task of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The media tools we have at present, i.e the Internet, global TV and radio Networks, have the potential to reach vaster global audiences and listeners, than the media channels of the 50′s and 60′s.  Thus our contemporary age is technically endowed with the means for both religious and lay evangelists, to reach out to every continent on earth.  It is great news that Cardinal Sheen is to receive the spiritual title of “Venerable” from the Church, hopefully on the way to Canonization.

  • chiaramonti

    He was not a cardinal.

  • theroadmaster

    Mea culpa, you are of course right.  Thank you for the correction.


    The most relevant Sheen comment for our times may well be:

     “Who is going to save our Church? Not our Bishops, not our
    priests and religious. It is up to the people. You have the minds, the
    eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your
    priests act like priests, your bishops like bishops and your religious
    act like religious”

  • cephas2

    ‘Peace for the Soul’ by Fulton Sheen, is beside my bed and dipped into most nights. It’s a powerful book and beautifully written.

  • GI Joe

    He is one of my heroes.