Life Is Worth Living

On Sunday, April 7, 1946, Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen stepped into the pulpit of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The packed cathedral was stunned to hear Sheen criticize and castigate the United States for dropping atomic bombs upon the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Delivering that sermon less than a year after the horrific event, Sheen, speaking much like a biblical prophet, called the atomic bombing “immoral,” adding that “we have invited retaliation for that particular form of violence.” Noting the devastating impact upon residents of those cities, Sheen’s outrage piqued when he said the use of atomic bombs was “contrary to moral law” because they “do away with the moral distinction that must be made in every war — a distinction between civilians and the military.”

That sermon was delivered at a time when Americans overwhelmingly approved that military action, believing that the use of atomic bombs shortened the war and spared the lives of many American soldiers. Sheen’s sermon was courageous, confident, compelling, and done without fear of personal consequences, public repercussions or professional backlash.

Though Fulton J. Sheen was a priest, his reach extended far beyond American Catholicism. Via his immensely popular radio and television programs, he became a spiritual teacher to millions. He was listened to by people of all classes, races, denominations and religions. Along with his broadcasts, Sheen was a prolific author, writing more than 50 books. Many of his writings were best sellers found in homes as well as in Protestant church libraries all over North America, and more than a dozen are still in print.

The man who would become “the most famous preacher in the U.S.,” according to a Time magazine cover story in 1952, was born on May 8, 1895, in the small town of El Paso, Illinois. He was baptized Peter Sheen but changed his name to John at Confirmation and then adopted his mother’s maiden name — Fulton — as his first name.

Sheen attended St. Viator College in Illinois and St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, followed with additional graduate studies at The Catholic University of America and the University in Louvain in Belgium. By 1923 he had earned a Ph.D., in philosophy from the University of Louvain and, one year later, a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. Returning to his home diocese of Peoria, Illinois, he was assigned as an assistant pastor for a year before receiving his bishop’s blessing to accept a position as professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

Because of his effective and powerful communication skills, the National Council of Catholic Men asked him to be the speaker on their Catholic Hour Sunday evening broadcast on NBC. Beginning on March 2, 1930, the program was carried on 17 stations. As word of Sheen’s compelling presentations spread, more and more radio stations picked up the program. By 1940, he was on 118 NBC affiliates, as well as on short wave radio worldwide. Sheen was so well received that he began receiving as many as 6,000 letters daily, with at least one-third written by non-Catholics.

‘Life Is Worth Living’

As radio programming shifted into the new medium of television, Sheen began a weekly television series on ABC titled “Life Is Worth Living.” There, he was slotted into the “dead time” of 8 p.m. because it was believed that no program could compete against the enormously popular comedian Milton Berle, who was on at the same time with another network. Amazingly, this unpaid Catholic priest, speaking in front of a live audience without a script or cue cards and supported only with a chalkboard, drew ratings as large and sometimes larger than that of Berle.

Even editors at Time magazine were in awe of Sheen’s television presence and program. Following him around the television set, they wrote: “Sheen’s TV performance is remarkable not only for its length but for its ad-liberty. He speaks for 28 minutes straight, without script or cue cards. Without even a written outline, he produces facts, dates and six-digit statistics with the precision of an electronic calculator. For about 10 minutes before the show he usually meditates, on an unused part of the stage set for a murder mystery or a comedy show. Once on the air he never fumbles or rambles. He prides himself on the fact that, in a quarter-century of broadcasting, he has never finished more than two seconds early or late.”

By 1956 Sheen’s program was carried on 123 ABC stations and 300 radio stations. It was estimated that he had an audience of 30 million people weekly, including people of all faith groups. His mail surged to between 8,000 and 10,000 letters daily with some days as high as 30,000. In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for his program; he accepted the award with humor, saying, “I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” His program ended in 1957, but continued to be syndicated for years following.

As Sheen’s media presence expanded, so did his personal wealth. While he lived comfortably, Sheen was also extremely generous, particularly to the poorest of the poor across the United States. In his biography America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen, Thomas C. Reeves, notes “Sheen’s extraordinary generosity.” One example was in 1938 when Sheen was included in the will of a Mrs. William J. Babington, a wealthy patron of the Catholic Church. She left Sheen $68,824, an enormous sum during the depression of the 1930s.

Martin de Porres Hospital

Reeves writes that “Sheen spent his inheritance within a week, sending most of it to the diocese in Alabama.” He asked the Sisters of Mercy in Mobile to use the funds for building Martin de Porres Hospital, a small maternity ward for black mothers. At that time in America’s southern segregated states, blacks could not use white hospitals. In fact, Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen, the bishop of Mobile, Alabama, proudly noted that Sheen’s gift created “the only hospital in the city for colored and is very much appreciated by them.”

Though Sheen was a bestselling author and the host of an award-winning television program, he always remained a pastor to people, particularly those in crisis. One example cited by his biographer Thomas Reeves comes from 1952 when Sheen received a desperate letter from a Marian Cahill. She was frightened and grief stricken over recent news that her five-year-old daughter, Suzanne, had been diagnosed with childhood leukemia and had less than six months to live. In addition, Cahill was pregnant and soon expecting another child. Sheen responded promptly, inviting Cahill, her husband Vincent, who was an FBI agent, and the daughter to visit him in New York City. They accepted the invitation and it proved to be a great source of hope and comfort to the family.

Vincent Cahill recalls the visit: “He greeted us with great warmth, and was extremely cordial and gracious and went to great lengths to make our visit a happy and memorable one. The bishop gave Suzanne several lovely gifts to delight a child, including a gold ring and an ivory Rosary, both of which were subsequently buried with her. In addition he gave her his biretta, which he autographed, as well as a statue of the Blessed Mother and an ivory crucifix. He presented my wife with a beautiful World Mission rosary and gave me a heavy St. Christopher medal for my car.” Of the 45-minute visit, Cahill said: “We cherish this visit deeply since it gave us a considerable amount of strength and consolation to stand behind us for what we were to face.” Sheen continued to remain in touch with the family, writing frequent letters of encouragement with a standing invitation to be in touch if there were ways he could be of assistance.

‘We Are All Sinners’

Of particular concern to Sheen were those incarcerated. He often sought permission to conduct retreats inside prisons, permission which was readily granted. Conducting a retreat for prisoners was quite different from conducting a retreat for priests and laity, he said, describing his approach this way: “Before you, there may be 2,000 inmates, all of whom pay you the courtesy of thinking you have on the white hat and they have on the black hats. This is the way I solved the problem: ‘Gentlemen, there is one great difference between you and me. You have been caught; I was not. In other words, we are all sinners.’ From that point on, it was very easy to deal with them.”

At one prison retreat, an inmate consulted privately with Sheen. This man immediately admitted, “I’m in here for a meatball rap.” When Sheen asked what that meant, the man explained: “I have been convicted four times and under the Sullivan Law in New York that means life imprisonment. I stole a suit of clothes; I stole an automobile; I forged a check; and once I robbed without violence, and so I’m in for life.” The man told Sheen he had now been in prison 26 years. When Sheen left the prison, he wrote a letter to the Governor of New York saying: “Papers never change; men do. This man is just the same on paper as he was 26 years ago, but this not the same man inside as the paper man.” Sheen then asked the Governor to consider parole.

A few months later Sheen was surprised by a phone call from the prisoner letting Sheen know he had just been released. Sheen asked what kind of job he had had in prison, and the man told him he had been a cook. He immediately invited the released prisoner to come over to his residence and cook a meal for the two of them to celebrate the release. Sheen sent a car for him and the prisoner arrived with one of his few personal possessions, a French cookbook. The bishop and the prisoner enjoyed an elegant French meal together.

The Cadillacs

Because he was so readily recognized, Sheen was often stopped by strangers seeking advice. On one occasion he was driving by a Cadillac car dealership in Washington, D.C., when the owner, Floyd Akers, recognized him stopped at a light. Akers invited the bishop to his office for a consultation, explaining that he was having serious labor issues with his employees and asking if Sheen could offer any advice. “Why not give the workers a share in your profits, since in addition to their daily labor, for which they receive a salary, they also serve the general good and add to your capital, for which they receive no remuneration,” Sheen said and then proposed that the agency owner give one-half of his yearly profits back to the employees.

Akers accepted the idea and gave each employee profit sharing based on years with the dealership. After the first checks were distributed, employee morale and productivity improved dramatically. Akers was so pleased that, every year after that, he gave Sheen the use of a new loaner Cadillac. “When the new models appeared, he would ask me for the old one to be serviced and then would send me back with a new one,” Sheen said, explaining how he came to drive a luxury vehicle.

Sheen also used his influence to speak out on social issues. Just as he critiqued American use of the atomic bomb during World War II, Sheen also spoke in opposition to the Vietnam War. In July 1967, he called for an end to that conflict, pleading with President Lyndon Johnson to announce, “In the name of God, who bade us love our neighbor with our whole heart and soul and mind, for the sake of reconciliation, I shall withdraw our forces immediately from southern Vietnam.”

Along with his media ministry, Sheen had also been consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951, serving as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New York. In 1958, Sheen became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization dedicated to raising funds for various worldwide Catholic mission apostolates. His efforts at fundraising were enormously successful. In 1966, he was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York. He resigned from that position in 1969, when Pope Paul VI named him Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.

Sheen never seemed to grow weary of a workload which would stagger most people. The source of his strength came from a decision he made on the day of his ordination in 1919, which was to spend one hour every day in meditation. He maintained that practice every day for the rest of his life. In his autobiography Treasure in Clay, Sheen says that the daily hour was the source of growth and joy in his life, describing the hour of meditation as grounding and transformative.

Sheen said that “quite apart from all its positive spiritual benefits, (it) kept my feet from wandering too far . . .the Holy Hour 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.” Asked if spending an hour daily in meditation was difficult, Sheen explained: “Is it difficult? Sometimes it seemed to be hard; it might mean having to forgo a social engagement, or rise an hour earlier, but on the whole it has never been a burden, only a joy.”

Sheen died in his New York apartment on Dec. 9, 1979. He was 84. Several memorial services were offered in his honor, the major one taking place on December 13 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The massive church was packed to capacity. Present were Hugh Carey, governor of New York; Ed Koch, mayor of the city; Protestant evangelist Billy Graham; Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum; four cardinals and 48 bishops, as well as thousands of Sheen’s family, friends and supporters. Later, an editorial in America magazine summarized his life and influence this way: “The secret of Archbishop Sheen’s power was his combination of an educated and thinking head with a generous and feeling heart.”

REV. PARACHIN is a minister, journalist, and teacher of meditation and yoga with his wife, and writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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