By Monica Yehle
A letter to the New York national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from Malaysia had but one message -- an affirmation of the ongoing inspiration of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
''I have just finished reading Treasure in Clay,'' noted the letter's writer, a retired schoolteacher. The reference was to the autobiography of Archbishop Sheen, former national director of the Propagation of the Faith (1950 to 1966). ''I pray the Holy Spirit will reveal to me if there is any treasure in me.''
Without question, the priestly ministry of Archbishop Sheen -- through his teaching at the Catholic University of America, decades on television and radio, and time leading the U.S. Church's worldwide missionary outreach -- influenced thousands.
''I can never remember a time in my life when I did not want to be a priest,'' he penned in that same autobiography. Today, 30 years after his death, as his cause for canonization moves forward (see ''Saintly Status''), a look at his life reveals that he treasured most the Church and her Missions.
''You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.'' Such was the message the late Pope John Paul II offered Archbishop Sheen in St. Patrick's Cathedral on Oct. 2, 1979; just two months later, on Dec. 9, Archbishop Sheen went home to the Lord.
During his lifetime, he was most definitely a man of the Church. In his writings -- some 70 books and numerous newspaper columns, articles and letters -- and through the television and radio media, he touched many as he transmitted the teachings of the Church.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius C. Wang of San Francisco studied for three years after his ordination at St. Peter's College in Rome. He remembers Archbishop Sheen's yearly visit to that Propagation of the Faith college. A native of China, Bishop Wang said that those visits would ''fill him with much hope.''
''He would always tell us mission priests that we were the Church of tomorrow,'' he recalled. ''There was so much hope in that message.''
''A priest never touches reality until he touches a soul,'' Archbishop Sheen said. His converts numbered in the hundreds, ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Among the more famous were Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce and Heywood Campbell Broun, newspaper columnist, author, and one of the founders of the American Newspaper Guild. Once asked how many converts there actually were, Archbishop Sheen replied: ''I have never counted them. I am always afraid that if I did count them, I might think I made them, instead of the Lord.''
Msgr. Andrew Connell, former archdiocesan director for the Propagation of the Faith in Boston, Mass., recalled the Good Friday when Archbishop Sheen preached the seven last words of Christ before a record crowd in that city.
''He wanted nothing on the stage but a large crucifix and a kneeler,'' Monsignor Connell said, remembering the archbishop's words: ''I will only kneel; I will not sit. Our Lord did not relax on the Cross.'' The service lasted more than three hours. The night before, Msgr. Connell was told, Archbishop Sheen stayed up all night in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in prayer. (See also ''Archbishop Sheen's Hour.'')
At Archbishop Sheen's funeral Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, the man who succeeded him as national director of the Propagation of the Faith, the late Archbishop Edward T. O'Meara, eulogized his predecessor and his friend.
''A voice is silent in the midst of the Church and in our land, the like of which will not be heard again in our day,'' he said. ''The vocation of Fulton Sheen is consummated; he has responded with one final 'yes' to the call of God.''
Archbishop Sheen -- asleep on a concrete floor.
It was on a visit to Uganda, East Africa, when Archbishop Sheen stayed in a small center where priests would come after being out in the Missions for a long period of time. That particular night, there were so many missionaries coming and going that he found himself a spot on the floor near the front door. And slept.
''About four o'clock I was awakened by one of the priests leaving,'' he wrote in his autobiography. ''He carried a large sack on his back. 'Father, where are you going?' I inquired. 'I don't know,' he said. 'When will you be back?' 'In about six months.' He was on his way to establish a new missionary station.'' Archbishop Sheen saw him off from his ''bed'' on the center's floor.
It was in 1950 that Pope Pius XII asked this priest from Peoria to fill the office of national director of the Propagation of the Faith. For a quarter of a century before that, he had been a preacher, a teacher, a lecturer, an instructor of converts. He inspired men and women he was instructing about Christ and the Church; he spent hours behind a microphone. But with that 1950 appointment, Archbishop Sheen said, he would be ''opening the narrow door of a classroom to the world.''
He narrated films on the Missions to help people see ''in action'' the missionary work that so needed their participation. He shared with readers of the magazine he founded, MISSION, still published today, moving letters that came from missionaries. He visited mission lands all over the world, and when at home, kept the great needs he saw never far from his mind. Each afternoon, kneeling, he led his office staff in praying the Rosary for the Missions. Archbishop Sheen also took time to offer co-workers spiritual commentary on certain passages from the Bible; as national director he estimated going through practically the whole of Scripture in those office meditations.
''My greatest love has always been the Missions of the Church,'' he would come to say. ''The 'heralds of the Gospel' brought inspiration to my life and to my office and to my pen.''
There will be a special Mass to mark the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Sheen's death on December 9 of this year at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan as main celebrant and homilist. On that day there will be a celebration once again of Archbishop Sheen's life message -- his treasure of love for the Church and the Missions. TP
MONICA YEHLE is Director of Development and Programs of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, and editor of MISSION magazine.
On Sept. 14, 2002, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, Italy, gave permission to Bishop Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., of Peoria, Ill., to officially open the cause for canonization of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. (Archbishop Sheen was born, raised and later ordained to serve as a priest in that diocese.) As a result, he is now referred to as ''Servant of God.''
In the summer of 2006, documentation of two alleged miracles attributed to Archbishop Sheen was sent to Rome, furthering the cause for his canonization. In February 2008, a Mass in Peoria, at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated the end of the diocesan phase of the inquiry into the life and works of Archbishop Sheen.
For more information, please visit www.archbishopsheencause.org.
By Monsignor John E. Kozar
If we try to characterize Fulton Sheen and look at what really set him apart as a servant of God, as a holy man, as a priest's priest, I would say far and away the greatest sign of his holiness would be his unwavering devotion to the Eucharist. Each day included a Holy Hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament -- no matter where he was. He was never too busy, tired or preoccupied to set aside this hour of quality time before our Lord in His Eucharistic presence.
Prayer for him involved listening to God. He incorporated this feature, this listening, into his Holy Hour.
Today, as we look to the life of Fulton Sheen, we have a notable example, especially for us priests. In fact, our culture, our society, needs his example, and we need to do our very best as he taught us not just to talk to God, but also to listen to Him as He speaks to us, especially through the Eucharistic presence of His Son. Archbishop Sheen was such a popular orator and speaker because he was first such an intense listener to the voice of our Lord in the Eucharist.
In his more than 60 years of priestly service, he demonstrated what our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, privately said to him in a very emotional embrace in St. Patrick's Cathedral only a few months before he died. ''You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.''
We give thanks to Almighty God for the life of Archbishop Sheen, a holy man and a servant of God. And we place before the Lord the cause for Archbishop Sheen's canonization. May each of us, as priests, incorporate into our lives and ministry all of the good that Archbishop Sheen has taught and left as his legacy.
MSGR. KOZAR is national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a Pontifical Mission Society, as was Archbishop Sheen.