When Bonnie Engstrom and her husband, Travis, were considering names for their third child in…
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s voice of sanctity
In his posthumously published autobiography “Treasure in Clay” (Image Books, $18), Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen acknowledged faults including vanity and a comfortable lifestyle. “I consider everything waste except knowing Christ,” he wrote.
That was the voice of his sanctity speaking. His legion of admirers can be pardoned for thinking differently about his remarkable career.
Now the Church he loved and served so well is preparing to recognize this quintessential man of his times — the middle decades of the last century — as a man for all times. On Dec. 21 in the cathedral of his home diocese, Peoria, Illinois, this iconic figure of early TV will be beatified — formally declared “blessed,” the final stage before formal recognition as a saint.
Beatification, like canonization, requires authentication by the Holy See of a miracle performed at the intercession of the one beatified. Archbishop Sheen’s miracle was the healing in Peoria of an apparently stillborn infant whose heart did not beat for 61 minutes but started after his intercession was sought. Today young James Fulton Engstrom is a healthy 9-year-old who likes chicken nuggets, “Star Wars,” and riding his bike.
The beatification ceremony will take place at the altar where Fulton Sheen served as an altar boy and 100 years ago was ordained a priest.
Following ordination and studies in Louvain, Belgium and Rome, he taught theology and later philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
In early 1930, the National Council of Catholic Men invited him to launch a Sunday evening radio show called “The Catholic Hour.” The response was so positive that he soon was the regular speaker, with an audience that eventually rose to 4 million and generated as many as 6,000 letters weekly from both Catholics and non-Catholics.
Then came television. In 1952 the DuMont network asked the recently named auxiliary bishop of New York to fill a half-hour in the Tuesday 8-9 p.m. time slot opposite comedian Milton Berle’s enormously popular show on another network. It was assumed that Bishop Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living” would attract only a handful of viewers.
The assumption was dead wrong. By April, the bishop, clad in episcopal robes and using neither teleprompter nor notes, was getting 8,500 letters a week. At the peak, he had 30 million viewers. The New York Times TV critic hailed the show as “remarkably absorbing.” Time magazine put him on its cover and called him “perhaps the most famous preacher in the U.S., certainly America’s best-known Roman Catholic priest.” Receiving an Emmy, he thanked “my four writers — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
He also wrote books — 73 of them, many still in print. He was famous, too, for his celebrity converts, including writer Heywood Broun, playwright, congressman and ambassador Clare Boothe Luce, former editor of the Communist Daily Worker Louis Budenz, musician Fritz Kreisler and movie actress Virginia Mayo. An ardent anti-Communist since the 1930s, he was a notable Cold War figure but opposed the war in Vietnam. As national head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, he raised some $200 million for foreign missions.
In 1966, at age 71, he was named Bishop of Rochester, New York. Although he aimed to be a Vatican II bishop, he was criticized for unilateral decision-making and later attributed his problems to lack of experience heading a diocese. After retiring in 1969, he was named an archbishop.
On Dec. 9, 1979, he was found in his private chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, dead of heart failure at the age of 84. By the end, it seems, he knew Christ.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.