Destined to become the most famous American Catholic of the 20th century, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was born on a farm near El Paso, Illinois. His adult height was 5’7”. Throughout life he never weighed more than 140 pounds in spite of a chronic addiction to chocolates and ice cream. Farm neighbors who had seen him in his teen years struggle mightily to turn a team of plough horses said he would never make a farmer. In later years Sheen admitted that studying for the priesthood may well have been motivated in part by his terror of trudging behind a plough for the rest of his life. Everyone noticed that he excelled in his studies and made a superb player on the high school and college debating teams. Upon earning his baccalaureate, he was offered a full scholarship to study for a PhD. This opportunity he was persuaded by a priest friend to decline in favor of studying for the priesthood.
As is often the case, Sheen’s mother was the main influence behind his call to the priesthood. Early in his life she had taught him the moral imperative: he had stolen a 10-cent pot of geraniums from a grocer; she made him return the pot with an apology and fifty cents from his piggy bank. Perhaps at this time he also learned his later opposition to war, having been required during his boyhood, as he later reminisced, to wring the necks of about 22,413 chickens. While in the seminary Sheen had ulcers, and a section of his intestines was removed. Thereafter he required little food on his plate, and cleverly acquired the habit he called “rolling the carrot,” using a fork to move the food about his plate in such a way as to make it seem he had eaten a fair portion.
During his seminary years Sheen mastered the writings of Thomas Aquinas, very much in vogue at the time. After ordination he continued studies in Rome, where he encountered a voice instructor who gave him lessons that would prove enormously useful as a preacher. In London he met and favorably impressed G. K. Chesterton, the most popular Catholic writer of his day. Chesterton would later write the introduction to Sheen’s first book, God and Intelligence. Sheen little realized that he himself would someday be referred to as the American Chesterton for his way of rendering unusual insights with brevity and punch.
Here are some examples. “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” “There are only a handful of Americans who hate the Catholic Church, though there are millions who hate what they think is the Catholic Church.” “If you do not worship God, you worship something, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself.” “In history the only causes that die are the ones for which men refuse to die.” “If you want to know about God, there is only one way to do it: get down on your knees.” “There are two kinds of atheism: the atheism of the right, which professes to love God and ignores neighbors; and the atheism of the left, which professes to love neighbors and ignores God.”
While visiting the shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes, Sheen asked the Blessed Mother for a special sign that he was favored by her. The sign he requested was that, as he left the shrine, a young girl dressed in white would present him with a white rose. Sheen related that he was left trembling in his tracks when that was exactly what happened. Early in his priesthood he acquired the lifelong habit of sitting before the Blessed Sacrament an hour each day. This daily devotion became “like an oxygen tank to revive the breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the foul and fetid atmosphere of the world.”
Eventually Sheen’s bishop sent him to teach at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Very popular with the students at CU, Sheen taught there for well over 20 years; but he had to endure the petty distractions of faculty politics and the envy of other professors irritated by the astonishing number of books he published and the energy he devoted to the Catholic Radio Hour from 1930 to 1950. It is not possible to go into depth here about the books and the radio preaching, except to say that during this period Sheen got for himself a reputation as the most influential religious thinker and speaker of that period. He lavished a great deal of his energy opposing the growth of the Marxist influence in America and agreed with the popes of that period that the long range influence of Communism would be far more dangerous to the Church and the whole world than was the threat of the Nazi party in Germany. Sheen, Cardinal Spellman of New York and other American religious leaders were appalled when they discovered the deals FDR and Truman had made to leave Poland, East Germany, and other satellite countries under the heel of Stalin’s atheistic and corrupt regime. Sheen, moreover, was among the first churchmen to condemn the dropping of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Referring to the corollary of Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount (Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”), Sheen asked how Americans would have felt if Hitler had dropped such bombs on American cities.
In 1934 Sheen had been made a Monsignor and began to wear his trademark touch of purple and flowing cape on every public occasion. Sheen’s theatrical talents were observed and remembered by many. Sometimes at small gatherings he would mime Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character, including walk and gestures. Perhaps Sheen’s personal trait that stood out most was his hypnotic stare. He sometimes appeared to people to be staring right through them if the conversation was interesting. But if for one second he thought you didn’t know what you were talking about, you knew from the glaze over his eyes that you had been judged.
During the 30s and 40s Sheen became famous for converting people from every walk of life. He was convinced that people were attracted to the Church because they were tired of the world’s excuses for all the right and wrong that is in the world. But most of all they were convinced that the Church was better than any other path to the forgiveness of their sins. When working with converts he chose never to attack the religion from which they were coming, and he advised others to do likewise. The actress Loretta Young, industrialist Henry Ford II, and playwright Clare Boothe Luce were just three of his more famous converts. One day Monsignor Sheen was visiting Jo Mielziner, a Hollywood personality, for the purpose of giving him instructions in the teachings of the Church. Greeting Sheen at the door, Mielziner explained that the actor Humphrey Bogart was in the living room, that he had just invited the actor to sit in on the lesson, and that Bogart, living up to his wise-guy persona, answered that he probably knew more about the Catholic Church than any priest knew. Introduced to Bogart, the actor innocently asked Bishop Sheen if his father had also been a priest.
By 1950 Sheen’s Catholic Radio Hour audience was nearly four million strong. Sheen was now 55 years old and ready to face even greater challenges, which very soon came at him. The position of U.S. Director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith fell vacant, and Cardinal Spellman decided to offer the position to Sheen, with the proviso that the position include his ordination as a bishop. Sheen, who was favored by Pius XII for the position, immediately accepted and went to Rome for his consecration. The new position entailed the huge burden of fundraising in America for Catholic missions throughout the world. Sheen’s popularity and his many contacts with the rich and famous made him the ideal candidate for the position
Soon after his consecration he was approached with the offer of doing a television series. This presented Sheen with an opportunity to enlarge his missionary field. His 30-minute weekly broadcast to the nation, titled Life Is Worth Living, was widely popular, easily rivaling the viewership of singer Frank Sinatra and comedian Milton Berle. Sheen combined his skills of professor and showman in such a way as to inspire the admiration of rival television evangelists, including Billy Graham, who was always generous in his remarks about Sheen. One formal study of television history reports that Life Is Worth Living was the most popular religious show in television history, garnering 30 million weekly viewers by 1957
Sheen’s television series ended in 1957, after which followed a flurry of book publications, including his critically acclaimed Life of Christ (1958) and his autobiography, Treasure in Clay (1980). My own favorite is an earlier volume, Peace of Soul (1949). This is a profound philosophical study of the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation as it relates to spiritual conversion and discovering God in our lives. The chapters titled “Examination of Conscience,” “The Psychology of Conversion,” and “Is God Hard to Find?” are especially deep and rewarding.
In “Is God Hard to Find?” Sheen replies that God can certainly be found; in fact, the search for God is so natural that sooner or later, barring self-imposed or societal obstructions, God should be found. After all, man is the only animal who is not content with satisfying his immediate needs; he constantly craves answers to questions about his own destiny and the destiny of the universe that no other animal could think to ask. In other words, man is the only metaphysician and theologian in the world, so there is no natural impediment to his search for God. Reason itself is on his side because reason tells him that there must be an invisible Power and Design behind all the forces of nature. This instinct is so universal that religion exists everywhere in the world; even if, at times, some religious impulses are immature or misdirected or radically confused.
To support this point Sheen calls on the remarks of Carl Jung, the psycho-analyst who was famously critical of Freud’s view that religion is a neurotic quest for consolation. In his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul Jung writes: During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. I have treated many hundreds of patients, the larger number being Protestants, a small number of Jews, and not more than five or six believing Catholics. Among all my patients in the second half of life – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”
“God is the most obvious fact of human experience,” Sheen says. “If we are not aware of Him it is because we are too complicated and because our noses are lifted high in the air in pride…. Why do we behave so? It is hard to believe, but we have the Divine warrant for it that some ‘men love darkness rather than the light.’” There is a constant phrase from the lips of Jesus … “Fear not.” Sheen pinpoints three fears that impede our search for God: “(1) We want to be saved, but not from our sins. (2) We want to be saved, but not at too great a cost. (3) We want to be saved in our way, not His.”
Sheen thus sees egotism as the main barrier between knowing God and not knowing God. So long as that barrier exists, it is not possible to find God because we have insisted that God must enter our world, while we need not enter His. To enter His world and know Him we must love Him. Love of God presumes submission of our will to the good He intends for us to know. Very often we hear a man say of another man’s girlfriend, “I do not understand what he sees in her.” Of course he does not. He has never opened his heart to the other man’s girlfriend, so how could he know? “It is hard for self-centered creatures to realize that there are souls that are really and truly passionately in love with God.”
Another reason people do not find God is that they do not desire to find God. This is typical of other kinds of behavior. People do not find happiness because they do not want to find happiness. People do not find wisdom because they do not want to find wisdom. People do find virtue because they do not want to find virtue. This does not mean that any of these things cannot be found. Sheen cites Jeremiah 29:13: “You shall seek me, and shall find me, when you shall seek me with all your heart.” Thus finding God is not just a matter of the intellect seeing, but of the will desiring to see. “Atheism, which rejects this majestic fact, is not the knowledge that God does not exist, but only the wish that He did not, in order that one could sin without reproach or exalt one’s ego without challenge…. If we fly from God, it is because union with Him demands disunion and divorce from evil. We cannot long stand a God Who looks into our soul and sees its ugliness, without falling to our knees …. There is no escape from God.”
In the chapter “Examination of Conscience” Sheen invites the reader to begin the climb on the ladder to perfection; not an essentially agreeable climb since it requires once again that we submerge our egos in the great I Am. That is, it requires that we see ourselves in all our ugliness that we may begin to make ourselves more beautiful in the sight of the Lord. Sheen sees St. Augustine in his Confessions as the supreme exemplar of he who is not afraid to examine his own soul. Augustine was centuries ahead of Freud. Sheen admits that the psychological school of psychoanalysis has much to recommend itself in that it promotes our search into ourselves and the recognition of the truth about those parts of ourselves that are causing us to be sick. Where psychoanalysis goes wrong, however, is that it denies the existence of sin and the need not only for recognition of such, but also for God’s forgiveness of our sins. That is why in the long run the priest’s confessional is so much more healing than the psychiatrist’s couch.
A guilty conscience is the thing that “cannot boast of its guilt, its shame, or its misery; even in isolation a guilty conscience is troubled…. No person is ever made better by having someone else tell him how rotten he is; but many are made better by avowing the guilt themselves…. It is true that after our examination of conscience we do find ourselves unlovable, but it is precisely that which makes us want God – because He is the only One Who loves the unlovable.” There follows a chapter on “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” a trenchant conclusion of which is that “Regular confession prevents our sins, our worries, our fears, our anxieties from seeping into the unconscious and degenerating into melancholy, psychoses, and neuroses. The boil is lanced before the pus can spread into unconsciousness.”
Most important of all, every soul needs a conversion moment, or if necessary, a succession of conversion moments. In the chapter “Psychology of Conversion” Sheen says that true conversion of the soul to Christ comes often at a moment of intense crisis: death, divorce, illness that result in suffering and a profound sense of helplessness. “Not until the tug of war begins, with the soul on one end of the rope and God on the other, does true duality appear as the condition of conversion…. There must be in the soul the conviction that one is in the grip of and swayed by a higher control than one’s own will; that, opposing the ego, there is a Presence before Whom one feels happy in doing good and before Whom one shrinks away for having done evil…. The tragedy is that many souls, feeling this anxiety, seek to have it explained away, instead of following it to where, at the end of the trail, it is seen as God and actual grace working on the soul.”
Sheen was adamant that there is in us a certain egotistic predisposition to regard the admission of guilt as a character defect, and that the only sin is to admit the existence of sin. Since people like to put their ego above all else, they cannot admit the existence of “an outside Power from whom the saving experience will come…. Therefore a necessary prelude to conversion is a spirit become docile, teachable, and humble. For if we think we know it all, not even God can teach us.” Here Sheen echoes the words of Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4).
In his last years Sheen continued to write and preach as health and energy allowed. One late afternoon in December of 1979, at the age of 84, he was discovered dead in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in his private chapel. He was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral near the past archbishops of New York. The cause for his canonization was opened in 2002. Fulton Sheen’s official title at this time is Venerable, a fitting honor for the man who had vigorously preached, “If you want to know about God, there is only one way to do it: get down on your knees.”
Carl Sundell is Professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas. He has authored several books and has contributed articles to New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He is currently developing a book for students of Catholic apologetics.