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Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen - Author, Orator and Missionary

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

During the Tre Ore sermon which he preached on Good Friday some years ago, Fulton J. Sheen asked his audience: "If Jesus Christ thirsted for souls, must not a Christian also thirst? If He came to cast fire on the earth, must not a Christian be enkindled? Has he not called us to be His apostles and His ambassadors, in order that His Incarnation might be prolonged through the continued dispensation of the divine through the human?" He answered his own question by declaring that, "A Catholic who does not strive to spread his Faith is a parasite on the life of the Church." [1]

This apostrophe on the duty and dignity of the Christian apostolate is a faithful description of Bishop Sheen himself, whose zeal in advancing the Kingdom of Christ in America made him "the most widely publicized "converter" in the Church, perhaps the most famous preacher in the United States, and certainly America's best known Catholic priest." [2]

Born in the small country town of El Paso, Illinois, on May 6, 1895, Fulton Sheen was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 24. After receiving a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain, and in theology, from the Angelico, Rome, he returned to the United States in 1925, and two years later began teaching philosophy at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In 1950, he was appointed National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and shortly after, went to Rome, where he was consecrated titular Bishop of Caesariana and made auxiliary to His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York.

Opponent of Modern Atheism and Communism

Fulton Sheen realized from the outset that the apostolate in our times, before everything else, means to expose the errors and tactics of the enemies of Christ. Unless the evils which surround them are understood, he argued, how can faithful Christians protect themselves from contagion; and unless their disease is made known to them, how can those who now hate and revile Christ be finally converted to love Him?

The first of his thirty-six published volumes, therefore, was a carefully documented analysis of the godlessness of modern civilization, especially in the United States. "Modern philosophy," it began, "has seen the birth of a new nation of God. It is God in evolution. God is not He becomes. In the beginning was not the Lord, but in the beginning was Movement. From this movement God is born by successive creations. As the world progresses, He progresses; as the world acquires perfection, He acquires perfection. (Moreover) man is a necessary step in the evolution of God. Just as man came from the beast, God will come from man… It is the purpose of this work to examine this new notion of God," which he did, through 300 pages of quotations from American and English pragmatists like James, atheists like Dewey, naturalists like Sellars, and agnostics like Hume, Huxley and Hocking. His conclusion, which might serve as a thesis for all his future writings, was that: "The wisdom of the ages and the epitome of our experience is given in the simple truth understood by the simple and forgotten by many a philosopher, that we are not 'God-makers but God-made." [3]

Between 1925 and 1937, three other books dealt with the same general theme, the decadence of western society as the result of its estrangement from God. [4]  By 1937, however, it became sufficiently clear to Sheen that modern atheism was not only an esoteric philosophy preached by learned professors at Harvard and Yale; [5]  it was a new messianism emanating from Moscow and threatening to cover the face of the earth. So in the same year that Pius XI issued his Encyclical on Atheistic Communism, Msgr. Sheen published three books entitled, in sequence: Communism, Communism and Religion, and Liberty Under Communism. All through the war years, when others were silent on the subject because of our alliance with Russia, Sheen was unsparing in his denunciation of the "Red Terror."

Finally in 1948 he published Communism and the Conscience of the West, which competent critics have justly described as "a prerequisite for an intelligent understanding of communist thought and development." [6]

Regarding the origin of Communism, Sheen is convinced that this "apocalypse of violence" is the price of our sins. [7]

Communism is both an effect and a judgment on our Western world; an effect because it was born of our unfulfilled Christian duties, our abandonment of the Father's House in favor of materialism; a judgment because it reveals how wrong has been our thinking, how evil have been our deeds.

Where, he asks, did the philosophy of Communism begin? Not in Russia, but in the Western world of the last century. It is western in origin: its philosophy is German, its sociology French, its economics English. Karl Marx, its founder, patched the dialectics of Hegel on to the materialism of Feuerbach, to the sociology of Proudhon, to the economic problems born of liberalism, and out of it came the new gospel which has now turned upon its creators to torment them for the past. [8]

Since our generation is responsible, we must humbly acknowledge our guilt before God, sincerely repent, and do penance for the errors of the past. But even this is not enough. For "unless there is a moral revival in our Western world (especially) a rebirth of family life, Communism may be the instrument for the liquidation of a bourgeois civilization that has forgotten God." [9]  We are afraid of Communism, and with justice; but our fears should be rational. "Communism," he says, "is not to be feared just because it is anti-God, but because we are Godless; not because it is strong but because we are weak, for if we are under God, then who can conquer us?" [10]

Christian Psychology Versus Freudianism

In 1946, Dr. Joshua Liebman, rabbi of Temple Israel, Boston, and one of the leading radio preachers in the States, published a best seller on Freudianism called Peace of Mind. The first issue of 20,000 was sold out in a month. By the end of 1947, over 475,000 copies had been bought by anxiety-ridden Americans who desired the peace of mind which the author promised them. But the price of this peace" was high. Under title of "Conscience doth make cowards of us all," in one chapter Rabbi Liebman disposed of sin, guilt, penance and the commandments of God, as relics of "the early stages of mankind," from which it is high time that our scientific age should be delivered.

Liebman died not long after publishing his book, but this was too widely read and imitated by others to be left unchallenged. Fulton Sheen answered Liebman in the Peace of Soul, which attained a popularity not incomparable to Liebman's. Besides appearing in book form, it was also published serially in the secular newspapers, whose editors recognized that true peace is possible only with a Christian solution of the problems that are torturing men’s souls.

"Unless souls are saved," Sheen began, "nothing is saved. There can be no world peace unless there is soul peace. During World War II, Pius XII said that postwar man would be more changed than the map of postwar Europe. It is this postwar, frustrated man, or the modern soul, who interests us in this volume.” [11]  Fourteen chapters then follow in the order of Liebman's panegyric on Freud. He begins by "debunking" the assertion that psychoanalysis has something "new and better" to offer for the care of men's souls than the wisdom of the Church and her saints. "In the whole gamut of modern psychology there is nothing written on frustration, fears and anxieties which can even faintly compare in depth or breadth with St. Thomas's treatise on the Passions, St. Augustine's Confessions, or Bossuet's treatise on Concupiscence." [12]

In answer to the rabbi, who described religion as "a fossil in an age that has turned to Marx and Freud and Einstein for salvation," 13] Sheen logically reduced the various tensions which psychology studies to a reflection of the "deeper metaphysical tension, inherent in every human being, between his contingent and limited being and the Infinite and Absolute Being" of God. [14]

And instead of surrendering to one's feelings which Liebman recommended as the condition for peace of mind, Sheen explains and proves that "anxiety cannot be cured by a surrender to passions and instincts; the basic cause of our anxiety is a restlessness within time, which comes because we are made for eternity. If there were anywhere on earth a resting place other than God, we may be very sure that the human soul in its long history would have found it before this." [15]

Speaking for the Freudians, Liebman had scoffed at the idea of guilt and sin. But sin, says Sheen, is relentless. "If we remain in sin through the denial of sin, despair takes possession of our souls." And then follows a terrible indictment of those who, under cover of science, would destroy the foundation of the moral order. "The condition of despair induced by unrepented sin often reaches a point where there is a positive fanaticism against religion and morality. He who has fallen away from the spiritual order will hate it, because religion is the reminder of his guilt." [16]

It is to the credit of the American people that Peace of Soul was so favorably received. It is a further tribute to their faith in God and his revealed truth, that Bishop Sheen's television broadcasts every week over a national network has been officially rated as "the outstanding radio contribution to American culture in 1952." These programs, called Life is Worth Living, were a dramatic exposition of the principles outlined in the Peace of Soul. On Tuesday evenings, from 6 to 6:30, an estimated audience of two to five millon heard and saw a Roman Catholic Bishop chalk in hand, in front of a blackboard-explain the purpose of man’s life in this world; how because of the fall of Adam, sin and concupiscence have entered into our lives; how through the help of God's grace and the use of our reason, we may resist the drag of concupiscence and avoid the pitfalls of sin; and how if we are faithful in resisting temptation until death, we shall be happy with God for all eternity.

The Du Mont network, which presented the show, got no money for it, and gave the Bishop what in radio parlance is called an "obituary spot," i.e. conflicting with two very popular shows on other networks. Against this formidable competition, the bishop made a spectacular showing. Du Mont was deluged by mail response (8,500 letters a week). [17]  And the popularity rating of his program is regarded as "unequalled by any other 'inspirational' or intellectual show" in American television. One TV commentator at the time remarked, "It is quite possible that he is the finest Catholic orator since Peter the Hermit." [18]

Maker of Converts

Fulton Sheen's interest in converting non-Catholics and bringing lapsed Catholics back to the Church dates from his earliest years in the priesthood. With his increased popularity as a speaker and writer, requests for instruction multiplied from prospective converts - with remarkable success. Senator Wagner, the champion of labor; Heywood Broun, columnist and freethinker; Gretta Palmer, the writer; Fritz Kreisler, violinist; Elizabeth Bentley, communist underground worker; Henry Ford II, the motor industrialist, are some of the "notables" whom Bishop (As Father and Monsignor) Sheen brought to the Catholic Faith. But there have been hundreds of obscure converts too: the English actress who later became a contemplative nun; the French woman on the verge of suicide whom he saved and turned into a daily communicant; the Jewish girl, cast off by her family for becoming a Catholic, whom he set up in a beauty shop; the bigot who approached him to abuse him, and who ended as a zealous lay apostle for the faith.

The Bishop gives three reasons why non-Catholics turn to the Church: 1) a moral crisis, especially the consciousness of sin and the desire of forgiveness which the sacraments of the Church assure them; 2) an intellectual crisis, when people who have wandered for years in the desert of agnosticism suddenly realize that in the Catholic Faith are to be found that conviction of mind and peace of soul which they had been looking for elsewhere in vain; 3) a physical crisis such as illness, and accident or the loss of a loved one by desertion or death, when they realize that only in the teachings of the Church can they find that courage and strength of will which they need to carry their cross in conformity to the will of God.

Before instructions are possible, a likely convert must first be disposed to wish to become a Catholic or, if lapsed, to return to the Church. Sheen went out in search of the sheep, not hesitating to call on them personally, or to call them by phone and invite them to pay him a visit.

Louis Budenz had left the Church to join the Communist party, and eventually became managing editor of the Communist Daily Worker. In 1937 he publicly invited Catholics to join forces with Communism in the interest of world peace. Fulton Sheen answered him in a pamphlet in which he said: "I am convinced that the greatest propagandists of Communism know practically nothing factual about it. They talk of Russia either in general terms or in the stereotyped language of its propaganda. That is why I believe many communists are in good faith, and here I include you, Mr. Budenz.”

Not satisfied with this, the Monsignor arranged to meet Budenz personally in a New York hotel. At dinner together, Budenz started to argue in favor of the democratic merits of the new Soviet Constitution. But, as he later confessed, "Monsignor Sheen knows the secret of dealing with people who have broken with the Church. Pushing aside the remaining cutlery on the table as though to waive any argumentation, Monsignor bent forward and exclaimed: “Let us now talk of the Blessed Virgin!"'

This was the beginning of the end. Budenz continues: "Immediately, I was conscious of the senselessness and sinfulness of my life as I then lived it. The peace that flows from Mary, and which had been mine in the early days, flashed back to me with an overwhelming vividness. There rang in my ears for a moment the prayer which comes from the salutation of Gabriel: 'Ave Maria, gratia plena.' How often, I thought, has that supplication gone up from thousands in distress and brought them peace - and I, who know better, reject it!" [19]  It took six more years of persistent effort, patient correspondence and prayer, but finally Budenz returned to the Church and has since become one of the star witnesses before the American Congress in its fight against Communism in the States.

Clare Boothe Luce, congresswoman and ambassador to Italy, described her conversion to the Faith in McCall's magazine (circulation 4,150,347) in a series of articles called The True Reason. Speaking of the man whose instructions saved her from "the godless and atavistic underbrush of Freudianism" and brought her into the peace of God's truth, she says: [20]

Many people are curious about Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen. I would like to satisfy their curiosity, because it always pleases me to talk about him. He was so great a friend, being so great a friend of God's, when I needed such a friend so greatly. I can tell you that it is true when it is said that in his apostolic zeal he generates both heat and light. I never knew a teacher who could be at once so patient and yet so unyielding, so poetic and so practical, so inventive and so orthodox. But rumor to the contrary, there is nothing particularly hypnotic about Father Sheen. What 'hypnotizes' his converts is the sudden and unfamiliar sight of Truth and Love and Life eternal, which his instructions open up to them. This 'hypnotism' soon wears off as Father Sheen hopes it will, when you come to realize that the sight of these things which all men seek is in reality the sight of Home; and Home is a place where you may move easily and freely and need not strike attitudes or talk in whispers.
For this brilliant teacher, this good and gifted professor of Catholic philosophy, I thank God. I have often been asked, 'Would you have become a Catholic if you had not had Father Sheen to give you instructions?' My answer is, 'Of Course.' God intended me to be a Catholic or He would not have sent me to Father Sheen, the one best equipped to rid my mind of nonsense and fill it with the sense of Our Lord Jesus.

National Director of the Propagation of the Faith

In 1950, Monsignor Sheen took over the direction of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States. With this new appointment, he resigned as teacher of philosophy and subsequently produced results that were truly amazing.

To make the Missions better known, he began a "revolutionary streamlining of Catholic money-raising methods." Checking over the new trends in the secular publishing field, he found that small pocket-sized magazines are becoming most popular. The first step then was to change the large rotogravure Catholic Missions into the 14 X 10 cm. Mission booklet, which came out every two months and ran to 48 pages. Pointed epigrams: "Most people are unhappy because they make no sacrifice for others"; urgent appeals like the picture of a starving Chinese baby, subtitled: "Hunger: 2/3 of the people of the world go to bed hungry every night"; striking quotations like the one from Pascal: "Mohammed chose the way of human success, Jesus Christ the way of human defeat"; statistics on the Missions, like: "In St. Peter's Parish, Bombay, a total of 55,000 Holy Communions were distributed in two months" - were integrated with a running commentary on the sufferings of the pagans and the work of the missionaries, contrasted with the prosperity in the States and the need for self-sacrifice if the wish of Christ "that they all may be one" is ever to be fulfilled.

Besides the little Mission for popular appeal, Bishop Sheen started a new quarterly, Worldmission, a scholarly magazine which received contributions from experts in the mission field. For example, the Spring, 1953 issue had an article on "The Catholic Church and Indian Culture", another on "Federation in British Central Africa", also "Craftsmen of Ranchi", "Opportunities in Viet Nam" etc. -all carefully documented with cross-references and footnotes. Follow a dozen pages on "Current Trends", dealing with subjects like "Christian Art Trends in Asia", "Catholic Textbooks for Japan", and "Polygamy, West African Plague". The last twenty pages were given to short reviews of books which treat of the Missions or mission lands.

Finally, to keep a constant reminder before the people of their obligation to the Missions, the Bishop wrote a syndicated column, God Love You - a mixture of mission news and ten-word ferverinos - which ran in all the Catholic weeklies throughout the country. It was made strikingly personal by the Bishop's acknowledgment of gifts received for the Missions. Thus: "God love you to J.F.G. 'Please accept this donation of $10 for the Missions. I was going to buy a book with it, but maybe the Missions could use some books in my name…God love you to Mrs. J.K. who sacrificed going to the movies to send $5 to the Holy Father's Missions…God love you to A.D. 'My mother just got Mission, and I feel very sorry for that hungry little girl, and this $1 of my savings is to feed her. I am 8.'…God love you to T.L. 'Enclosed please find a money order for $15.65. This is my first job and I want my first week's pay to go to the Holy Father's Missions."' Always the weekly column stressed the need to pray for the Missions, pointing out that, "The most worthy of causes is to pray for the 1,100,000,000 pagans in the world who know neither the Sacred Heart, nor the Immaculate Heart."

Apostle of the Mother of God

No account of his prodigious achievement would be complete without reference to Bishop Sheen's personal devotion to the Mother of God and the efforts he made to extend this devotion in the United States.

All of his published books are formally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, each dedication different and each a declaration of their author's own great love for the Mother of Christ. [21]

Thus: "Reginae sine labe originali conceptae…Mule beneficiorum memor Ejusdem Virginis patrocinio…Dedicat auctor indignus.”
Again: "Dedicated to Mary, Gracious Mother-Heart of the World's Savior, In prayerful hope of the Conversion of Russia."
And again: "Dedicated to the Woman I love, The Woman whom even God dreamed of before the world was made; The Woman of whom I was born, at cost of pain and labor at a Cross. The Woman who, though no priest, could yet on Calvary's Hill breathe: 'This is my Body; this is my Blood.' For none save her gave Him human life. The Woman who guides my pen, which falters so with words, in telling of the Word. The Woman who, in a world of Reds, shows forth the blue of hope."

At least three entire volumes deal expressly with the subject of Mary. [22]  And in most of the others she figures so largely that, without her the books would lose their organic unity. However, it is in The World's First Love, that something of the secret of Bishop Sheen's inspiration and a reason for his success in the apostolate are best revealed. Commenting on the divine paradox which makes Mary at once the Virgin of virgins and the Spiritual Mother of all men, Bishop Sheen wrote: [23]

As virginity is not the opposite of love, neither is it the opposite of generation. The Christian blessing on virginity did not abrogate the order of Genesis to 'increase and multiply,' for virginity, also, has its generation. Mary's consecration of virginity was unique in that it resulted in a physical generation - the Word made flesh. But it also set the pattern for spiritual generation, for she begot the Christ-life. In like manner, virgin love must not be barren but, like Paul, must say: 'I have begotten you as most dear children in Christ.'
God who hated the man who buried his talent in the ground, will certainly despise those who pledge themselves to be in love with Him, and yet show no new life - converts or souls saved through contemplation. Birth Control, whether undertaken by husband and wife, or by a virgin dedicated to Christ, is reprehensible. On Judgment Day, God will ask all the married and all virgins the same question: 'Where are your children?' Virginity is meant for generation as much as married love is, otherwise the Model-Virgin would not have been the Mother of Christ, giving an example to others to be the fathers and mothers of Christians.

Bishop Sheen strived to live up to this ideal. In imitation of Mary, he was cooperating with God in bringing the life of Christ to thousands of souls who never knew Him or who, having known, forgot Him. And God blessed these efforts with an abundance of grace.

  •   Note: Originally published in Italian.

[1]  The Rainbow of Sorrow, New York, 1938, pgs. 69-70.

[2]  Pageant magazine, Chicago, June 1950; and Time magazine, New York, April 14, 1952.

[3]  God and Intelligence, London, 1925, pgs. 1, 2, 287. The full title of this first published work was: God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy; a Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas.

[4]  Religion Without God, 1928; Old Errors and New Labels, 1931; Moods and Truths, 1932.

[5]  William James, the father a American pragmatism, was professor of philosophy at Harvard until his death in 1910; and John Dewey’s clearest exposition of atheistic naturalism was given in a series of lectures at Yale University in 1934.

[6]  America magazine, New York, March 10, 1948.

[7]  Communism and the Conscience of the West, New York, 1948, pg. 57.

[8]  Ibidem, pg. 52.

[9]  Ibidem, pg. 54.

[10]  Ibidem, pg. 55.

[11]  Peace of Soul, New York, 1949, pg. 1.

[12]  Ibidem, pg. 7.

[13]  Liebman, Joshua Loth, Peace of Mind, New York, 1947, 15th printing, pg. 179. Liebman’s book was translated into Italian, with the title: Pace dello Spirito, in 1948, Milano, Bompiani. A review of the Italian translation may be found in La Civilta Cattolica, 1949, vol. 3, pgs. 164-165.

[14]  Peace of Soul, Pg. 32.

[15]  Ibidem, pg. 33.

[16]  Ibidem, pg. 74.

[17]  Bishop Sheen was the regular speaker on the Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the Catholic Hour, from 1930 to 1950. Sponsored by the National Council of Catholic Men and the National Broadcasting Company, the program was carried by 102 radio stations in 1950. In February 1941, Monsignor Sheen had received his 100,000th letter of response from the radio audience; one third of the letters were from Protestants. As a result of one of his broadcasts, requests for his Prayerbook for Our Time totaled over 50,000.

[18]  Quoted from the World-Telegram and Sun, in Time magazine, April 14, 1952.

[19]  Budenz, Louis F., This Is My Story, New York, 1947, pgs. 162-163.

[20]  McCall’s magazine, New York, April, 1947.

[21]  The three selected dedications are taken, in sequence, from the following books: God and Intelligence, Communism and the Conscience of the West, and The World’s First Love.

[22]  Best known are: The Queen of the Seven Swords, 1935; Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, 1945; and Jesus, Son of Mary, 1947.

[23]  The World’s First Love, New York, 1952, pgs. 170-171.

Great Catholic Book Newsletter
Vol 2, No. 2, pp. 1-9

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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