Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Written by Matthew O'Neill

First year Seminarian for the Diocese of Motherwell

May 5, 2023

“Truth does not change; it is only forgotten from one generation to the next. The truth is the truth even if no one believes it, and a lie is a lie even if everyone believes it.”- Bishop Fulton F. Sheen

 When Saint Pope John Paul II visited St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in October 1979, he made a beeline to one particular member of the clergy and enveloped him in an embrace, saying “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.” This man was Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, then simply Bishop Sheen, and the Pope was right to say so. In an age where great Catholic proponents of the Good News such as Bishop Barron, Fr Mike Shmitz and Scott Hahn are evangelising the new frontier of social media and YouTube, it’s worth going back to the man who presaged them all and used the new technology of the 20th century to spread Catholic teaching in a strong, kind, relevant and incredibly practical way.

Born in 1895, the oldest of four boys to devout Catholic parents, Fulton John Sheen felt an early call to the priesthood and was ordained in 1919; Upon his return to the United States after a period of study in Europe, Sheen began teaching at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he worked from 1926 to 1950. He became known for his eloquence in speaking and writing, and in 1930, he began hosting a weekly radio program called “The Catholic Hour.” The program reached millions of listeners and helped to establish Sheen as a prominent Catholic voice in America. 

After The Catholic Hour ended in 1950, Bishop Sheen stepped on to his most famous and wide-reaching stage:- television. Beginning with “Life is Worth Living” in 1952 and continuing til the end of the 1960s with “The Fulton Sheen Program”, Bishop Sheen’s trademark good humoured, deeply thought provoking way of reaching out to people was amplified to millions upon millions of Americans nationwide. A simple show, consisting of the Bishop himself and a chalkboard used to illustrate his points. In 1953, he became the first member of the clergy to win an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Whilst accepting the award, he quipped that it was all down to his writers:- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. His humour is definitely a part of him that I particularly connect with:- one of my favourite quotes of his is, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” No-one enjoys listening to a dour priest, and dour he was not- his infectious smile and warm personality helped him to give the experience of listening to a kindly, wise grandfather, and this ability to connect with people is one of the particularly special things about him.

After finding Bishop Sheen through YouTube in my early stages of discerning the priesthood, I came across a particular quote of his which struck me:- “Millions of favors are hanging from Heaven on silken cords- prayer is the sword that will cut them.” Up until that point, I had considered the priestly vocation as something rare, something that very few people were called to- which put the possibility of my having a genuine vocation in doubt, as anyone who knows me for long enough will tell you that I am probably not what the average person envisages when they think of a priest. But this quote made me stop in my tracks. I now wondered if perhaps it was not vocations that were rare, but discernment:- many, many men could be being called right now, but were unable to answer due to lack of prayer. This had a profound impact on my vocational journey, and made me see vocation as something that was a real possibility. I know from reading many testimonies online that many other people my age have discovered and been inspired by Bishop Sheen through finding his programs on YouTube:- the relevance and eloquence of his work has not been diluted the least bit in the years that have passed since.

I was surprised to recently learn that Bishop Sheen and I have a couple of things in common. Firstly, he attended the Angelicum University in Rome, where I currently study Philosophy, back in the 1920s, earning a degree in Sacred Theology. Secondly, and more, remarkably, he also had a special relationship with Carfin Grotto, the beloved Marian Shrine of the Diocese of Motherwell. He was a close friend of the Grotto’s founder, Canon Thomas Taylor, and visited many times, celebrating Mass and bringing his signature charm and wit to the people of Lanarkshire, with Bishop Sheen calling Canon Taylor “one of the most spiritual priests I have ever known”. Having visited the Grotto many times over the years since I was a boy, it was a strange sensation to know that the great American Bishop and personality that I had read and seen so much about had walked and prayed in this quiet little corner of Carfin that I knew and loved many years before, feeling the same way that I did. Although his words had resonated and connected with me before, I now felt a connection on another level, solidifying my devotion to him.

A couple of recommendations I would make to those who wish to experience Bishop Sheen for themselves:- firstly, I recommend a half-hour program entitled “Wasting Your Life”, which can be found on YouTube. This also had a large impact on the way that I saw my vocation and my faith in general. In it, Bishop Sheen over the course of half an hour puts forth the notion that the only way you can truly waste your life is to spend it on yourself- a life well lived is one where you give all you can give to God and His people. In terms of his books, a long but worthwhile read is Life of Christ:- it is a treasure trove of Bishop Sheen’s deep, original thoughts on who Jesus really is and what it means to live the life of Christ today. His inspiring, witty and thoughtful personality and zeal for the faith is just as present in his writing as in his preaching.

Bishop Sheen died in 1979, with a case for canonisation opening in 2002, which is still ongoing. He has left a legacy of a strong testament to the Catholic faith, a burning desire to spread the truths of the Gospel that he found through study and prayer:- the word I would use to describe Fulton Sheen at a fundamental level is generous. He was generous with his time, his resources, his knowledge and all his God-given talents. Struggling through many hardships in order to bring the truth to the people no matter the personal cost, I hold that Bishop Sheen is a shining example of the kind of priest that the 21st century needs:- one who is not afraid to tell it like it is, to get his hands dirty in the difficult parts of life, and to encourage and inspire others to live the life of Christ, by letting them see that life in him.

“God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us.”- Bishop Fulton F. Sheen