In Ages Past
Venerable Fulton Sheen: "A Loyal Son of the Church"
Perhaps the most memorable portion of Sheen's life was his television career. He appeared before his audience resplendent in cassock and cape, with silver hair and dark eyes shining on black and white screens nationwide. Charles Morris suggests that he "may have been the finest popular lecturer ever to appear on television":
He was elegant, elevated, relaxed, often very funny. Only Jack Benny could top Sheen's ability to hold back a punch line—ten seconds, sometimes even longer—gazing calmly at the camera the entire time.
"All at the same time," Morris concludes, "he managed to be religious, undogmatic, humane, and unthreatening. Week after week, the performances were simply brilliant." The show ended abruptly after he butted heads with Spellman over mission money, and Sheen lost. He continued at Propagation until 1966, when he was named Bishop of Rochester, New York at age seventy-one.
The Second Vatican Council had just ended, and Sheen sincerely tried to implement it. But this was a difficult time in the Church, and a particularly difficult time for Sheen. Critics suggested that his best days were past, that he wasn't suited to running a diocese, that he was more suited to big ideas than small details. In October 1969, he submitted his resignation. Named an honorary Archbishop, he went into semi-retirement.
In his later years, Sheen, suffering from heart disease, was largely confined to his Manhattan apartment. Occasionally he preached retreats and at various events. The most dramatic moment in a dramatic life occurred in St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1979, two months before his death. There Pope John Paul II publicly embraced Sheen, saying: "You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus; you are a loyal son of the church." The usually reserved Sheen broke down in tears, and so did the rest of the cathedral.
Fulton John Sheen was admittedly ambitious, undeniably vain, and he loved the limelight. At the same time, he possessed a deeply generous heart and a sincere love of humanity. Seeking to use his talents in the interest of humanity, he succeeded. His books, radio programs, and television shows have inspired countless thousands. And they still do today. There's a good chance we may never see his like again.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.