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

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?

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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.

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