Archbishop Fulton John Sheen:
A Priestly example for the Year for Priests
By Rev. Msgr. Richard Soseman, Official of the Congregation for the Clergy
As one reflects upon the themes of the Year for Priests, one cannot escape the conclusion that Our Lord chooses priests from various backgrounds, with diverse strengths and weaknesses, and uses these qualities for the furtherance of the Church and the salvation of souls. Some priestly vocations are nourished within illustrious families, some in the poverty of the ghetto. Some priests find their vocation in the rural area of their childhood, some in the most vibrant of urban areas. Some priests arrived at seminary as natural talents, with tremendous intellectual gifts, some priests scrape by, at times assisted by brother seminarians. Some priests come from families which are very boisterous and argumentative, some from peaceful and openly affectionate families. Some priests come from devout families in which the Rosary is prayed together daily, other priests found the Church only in adulthood, having found the light of Faith and come to the realization that our Heavenly Father wanted them to live that faith as a priest. In short, priests bring into the priesthood strengths and weaknesses, rich heritages of their own family life, and these continue to form their lives as priests.
Such a message was one which was considered important by the Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton John Sheen. Archbishop Sheen’s vision of the priesthood was very inclusive. He saw in God’s divine plan, Our Lord’s use of the many and singular graces which were given to him and to his brother priests. He also spoke of how Our Lord weaves together the many gifts, talents and also weaknesses and deficiencies of each priest, in order to shower unbelievably great graces upon the Church, through the ministry of individuals who are weak at times, but striving for holiness.
Archbishop Sheen certainly exemplified this in his own life. Born in rural El Paso, Illinois into a family which was involved in the overall work of agriculture, the Archbishop was baptized as Peter John Sheen, but already as a toddler he took his maternal grandfather’s last name Fulton, as his first name. The Sheen family was very devout, attending Holy Mass each Sunday and many weekdays, praying the family Rosary together each evening, attending parish retreats and missions. Just after little Fulton’s Baptism, his mother took the infant and laid him upon the altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, dedicating her son to his heavenly Mother. Certainly of the Blessed Mother’s heavenly care for him was a great consolation to him throughout his life.
When finishing university, the young Fulton renounced a prestigious national scholarship for Graduate School, and instead chose to enter seminary for the Diocese of Peoria. He spoke of the following of a vocation as a very personal matter, discerned in the stillness of the heart. He did not even speak to his own father about his choice of a vocation until the day he was leaving for seminary. “You are going to be a priest,” said his father, as he looked out of the window, “be a good one then.”
Throughout his life, Archbishop Sheen was known as a good priest, as an excellent priest. After completing illustrious studies in Europe, the young priest returned and was assigned by the Bishop as curate at St. Patrick’s Parish in Peoria. An elderly woman once told me that parishioners would attend early Mass in order to receive Holy Communion before breakfast, but many would go back to High Mass in order to hear Fr. Sheen preach. As he preached his eyes would seem to look straight into each person’s soul, everyone said, she told me years later. As curate, reflecting the universal call to salvation, and the responsibility of the priest for each soul within his parish, he visited each and every home within the parish territory, those of Catholics, of non practicing Catholics, of Protestants, and of non believers. This was not an easy task, as the parish was a rough and tumble area of Peoria, of people who were struggling financially. In his short time of serving as associate pastor, it is said that the parish came alive in many ways.
Such is also said of Archbishop Sheen’s teaching at the Catholic University of America, and of his preaching, first on radio, then on television. Students packed into Fr. Sheen’s lectures, even those who had not registered for the courses. They lined the walls, sat on the stairs, on the windowsills and even on the radiators. Letters flooded in each week as a response to Msgr. Sheen’s preaching on The Catholic Hour on radio, and the show was also broadcast in Latin America, in the original English, with a priest offering commentary in Spanish. Through a providential circumstance, Bishop Sheen was offered a local television show, to be broadcast in only two cities and only for the Summer. The program proved so popular, it was quickly extended to the entire network and ran for seven years on two different networks, inspiring people of all faiths. It is said that a third of the viewers was Catholic, a third Jewish, and a third Protestant. It would seem that the grace of Christ, flowing through Archbishop Sheen’s own response to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, enabled him to speak in ways which resonated with all manner of people, and brought them closer to the Church.
Archbishop Sheen recognized that Our Lord calls men of all different personalities and talents to the priesthood, and uses the positive and what some might consider negative elements of each priest’s personality, effectively to extend the wider work of the Church. In his book, Those Mysterious Priests (TMP), Archbishop Sheen outlines various types of priests known throughout the history of the Church. He classifies some of them as the impulsive priest, the chancery priest, the anti Bishop priest, the secular priest, to name a few, and he fits them all to the example of the first priests chose by Our Lord: the Apostles. As the example of the Impulsive Priest he names St. Peter. As the Chancery Priest he names St. John. The Anti Bishop Priest is St. James, Son of Alphaeus, and the Secular Priest, St. Jude Thaddeus.
According to Archbishop Sheen each type of priest has a distinct character, as did each of the apostles. The Impulsive Priest is always willing to say yes, but then cancels appointments, he is afraid of suffering, but is fundamentally loyal to the Church. The Chancery Priest is well connected, he wants the Bishop to crack down on those who don’t participate in diocesan activities, he has great ambitions, and is uncompromising, but he is a great consolation to his bishop, not just because of his support, but because of his true deep loyalty and love. The Anti Bishop Priest is strict, legalistic, and abstemious in his own life, and can be nasty at times. His sense of justice is absolute, but this gives him little sympathy for the Bishop’s governance. The Secular Priest, is always mistaken for someone else, and is always rumored to be on the point of leaving the priesthood, he eschews dogma and the use of the Sacraments to evangelize, preferring instead to seek publicity by quoting modern secular thinkers.
Through his writing, one notes Archbishop Sheen’s astonishment at the work of our Divine Lord, who chooses the weak and makes the strong. Our Lord takes priests from such a variety of backgrounds in order to make the Church flower in every time and place, from the time of the Holy Apostles, right down to our own time. He spends the chapters of Those Mysterious Priests reflecting on this great mystery for the benefit of the laity, helping all of us to understand and take to our hearts this great mystery. Bishop Sheen reminds us that priests benefit from a special Sacrament, but are still men who are prone to failure and temptation: “No man at all times lives up to his highest level; saints often fail in that very grace which was their most striking characteristic.” (TMP 267)
Priests might live in fear of our own weaknesses, Archbishop Sheen notes, but being priests exalts us, raises each priest above himself. This is nowhere more clear than in the manner in which Jesus works through us in our celebration of the Sacraments, especially at Holy Mass. At the time of the Consecration of Holy Mass, Archbishop Sheen was known to have said, each priest, no matter what his weaknesses, no matter what his foibles, is a perfect priest in the sight of the Heavenly Father, for at that moment he sees us as if through colored glasses, he sees us through his Son. Archbishop Sheen says that at that moment each of us is a good priest, each of us is a perfect priest, the best we have ever been.
The Priest is Not His Own (PNHO) is Archbishop’s Sheen’s reflection on the theological dimensions of the priesthood, meant rather for the benefit of his fellow priests. Archbishop Sheen places great emphasis upon the ways the priest is meant to be both priest and victim, in imitation of Our Divine Lord. In this book, Archbishop Sheen confronts many of the problems which still continue to challenge the modern priest, while making reassurances of the grace of God, sustaining the life and ministry of priests.
According to Bishop Sheen, unification with our Lord, each priest leaving himself at the disposition of the Lord, allows the ministry of that priest to be much more effective:
The priest who has given himself to the Heart of Our Blessed Lord, is known by Our Lord as “expendable” for His purposes. The priest becomes endowed with an extra power because of his suppleness in the hands of the Master. God gives some graces directly to souls, as a man gives alms to the poor man he happens to meet. But the Sacred Heart wishes great graces to be distributed to souls through the hands of His priests. (PNHO 230)
Recognizing a constant struggle between what priests are bound to do and what we also want to do, the great Archbishop uses the example of the Breviary. Archbishop Sheen says that sometimes our fidelity to the Divine Office is purely a prayer of the will. We make it our will to be present to Our Lord by praying the Psalter, by completing our daily obligation, even if we would much rather be elsewhere. Archbishop Sheen likens our faithfulness to our obligation to pray the Divine Office at those difficult times to Our Lord’s prayer during the Agony in the Garden. Our Lord willed himself to pray during that time, but it was not pleasant or light. In such manner, we may enjoy our prayer of the Breviary many times, but must persevere even at times when it is burdensome. Recognizing modern temptations to be called to other activities, he admonishes priests to pray the Divine Office in quiet and recollection, humorously stating in Latin that a priest should avoid praying the Breviary while also watching television.
Throughout The Priest Is Not His Own, Archbishop Sheen uses quite modern philosophical techniques to examine the various aspects of the priesthood from a personalist perspective, employing a technique which would later become quite commonly known through the works of Pope John Paul II. While never afraid to employ modern methods, Bishop Sheen was very much a man of his time and place. After the manner of St. Francis de Sales, he accepted the honors that were heaped upon him, but accepted them for Christ. Awarded an Emmy for the Most Outstanding Television Personality of 1952, he gave the statue to a young nephew who admired it. He was a priest who was given a particular social position and responsibilities, and so he lived very much as an upper middle class gentleman would live in New York. Having worked in a men's clothing store as a youth, he understood cuts of cloth and styles of dress. Because he understood himself to be very much an ambassador for Christ, he insisted that he always wear appropriate clerical dress, that it always be clean and in good repair. Because he was prone to five o'clock shadow, he placed the mortification upon himself to shave twice a day, in the morning, and again in the evening before public appearances. He never desired that anyone be alienated by his appearance, and so he took great care in this regard. Still, when people admired something in his office or home, he was very quick to offer it to them, so that many people left from their visit carrying a treasured artifact. His great nieces and nephews quickly learned about their uncle’s generosity, so their mother made a family rule which allowed only one of the children to admire only one item per visit.
Archbishop Sheen was very quick to remind priests that they had a special place within the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He stated that priest could count on special graces from the Heavenly Throne, but also were prone to certain temptations. One temptation a priest should never give into, however, was that of despair, thinking that God has abandoned them. He states “Priests may pledge their lives to him at ordination, but there will be moments when they will think that He is not equal to their ‘unbearable situation’.” Archbishop Sheen states that “in such moments, like John, they must bring their seeming defeat to the Lord, and never brood over it and assume that they know better than the Lord. Blessed is he who in spite of inner questions and frustrations, still sees no hope for the future except in getting closer to Christ.” (PNHO 268)
Archbishop Sheen was a noted author, of at least 66 books, of countless newspaper columns, of articles in major media outlets. He was not just a man of the book however, but was very much dedicated to using the mass media to disseminate the Gospel of Christ, to evangelize however he could. The first preacher on radio, Archbishop Sheen spoke so forcefully and convincingly each week on the Catholic hour, that his message resonated with people of every background, and his talks were rebroadcast throughout Latin America with commentary in Spanish. As was mentioned above, when television became the new medium, Bishop Sheen was given the opportunity to begin a television show, which became wildly popular because of his clear, rational and direct speech. He was convinced that he needed to use any media he could for the sake of spreading the Gospel of Christ, readying hearts to receive the teaching of Christ when brought to them through the Church.
Those who knew him say that he was always fascinated by the latest gadgets and technologies, trying to figure out how they worked, and then employing them in his important work. In his declining years, at the end of his morning meditation, he would record the fruits of that meditation on magnetic tape, have his various thoughts transcribed by his secretary, and see how any of them might help him in preparing for any of the numerous speaking engagements he kept on his schedule until just before his death. Were he alive today, Bishop Sheen certainly would be fascinated by the Internet and its abundant resources, as well as myriad other modern advances. He would certainly work to employ the elements of new technologies in his work of evangelization while expressing through them the timeless truths of Church teaching.
The Archbishop was very much concerned about the rise of philosophies which would denigrate the value of each individual human person. Rather than shun these philosophies or pretend they did not exist, Bishop Sheen studied them. In order to combat the difficulties brought to society by radical movements in modern psychology, Archbishop Sheen studied these techniques, so that he could caution against them. Some saw him as an enemy of Psychiatry. Instead, he urged Psychiatrist to employ sound methods, which would not objectify the individual person or deny the uniqueness of each person.
Rather than flee from writings which reflected the evils of atheistic communism, Bishop Sheen read Marx and kept informed on the daily activities and speeches of the leaders of Russia and of the communist parties in Europe and the United States. He was so dauntless and convincing in his attacks on Communists theories, that a death sentence was placed upon his head. He continued in this vital attack so cleverly, that the editor of the Daily Worker, official organ of the Communist Party of the United States, returned to the faith, and his family came forward to be Baptized. On his television program one evening in February, 1953, he read the end of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, substituting the names of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus with those of prominent Soviet leaders of the day: Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky. After reading of the death of Caesar, Bishop Sheen stated "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." Stalin suffered a stroke within a few hours of the broadcast of the program, and died the next week.
Bishop Sheen saw as one of the chief modern problems the devaluation of the human person, and alienation of each individual from another. This was manifested chiefly, in his time, by Atheistic Communism, by racism, and by Freudian applications of psychology. Bishop Sheen’s first television series was called “Life is Worth Living” because he wanted to encourage people to turn away from the depersonalizing anxiety and neurosis of modern life, and instead embrace the happiness found in following the Truth.
Daily prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was part and parcel of Archbishop Sheen's understanding of the Holy Priesthood. Our Lord’s priests must come to know him profoundly, and this should be done by spending time in his presence. Those who knew Archbishop Sheen said that when he entered the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, his face was transformed, so concentrated was he on the Presence of our divine Lord in the Eucharist. He would kneel, always, and devoutly pray on entering a building with a chapel, or on taking leave. As he knelt there, it is said that his attention was so great, his whole appearance was changed.
Bishop Sheen reminds us that all priests need the sustenance provided by a solid personal spiritual formation, with the cornerstone of a daily personal holy hour in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament: “How far we miss the joys of our priesthood, when our only meetings with the Lord are “public audiences”- at Mass, devotions, stations of the Cross, whenever we have to be there. The Lord wants “private audiences.” He wants a protracted audience, a full hour. John and Andrew stayed the entire day!” (PNHO 239) Archbishop Sheen offers a promise of great graces to those who make a daily Holy Hour: “Revelations made to the Sacred Heart to saintly souls indicate that still unexplored depths of that Heart are reserved for priests. There are veils of love behind which only the priest may penetrate, and from which he will emerge with an unction and power over souls far beyond his own strength.” (PNHO 229)
Often pastoral activity is spoken of as if social action is opposed to our religious obligations, or that we can or should neglect religious obligations when it is a matter of carrying out social action. Sheen teaches us that Holy Mass is the cornerstone of all of our social action as priests, and we should encourage others of the great graces flowing from Holy Mass which enable them to carry out their work in society much more effectively. According to Archbishop Sheen, St. John has a beautiful Eucharistic theology, yet his Gospel does not include an institution narrative, but instead of the Washing of the Feet. We prepare for Holy Mass by our activities and sacrifices in the social realm, and the graces we receive at Holy Mass flow forth into the world through our action. The Holy Hour immeasurably enhances those graces operating within priests, who become more pliable to the Divine Will, ever more ready and able to serve our Lord as he desires. Very much in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, then, devotion to the Holy Hour is a fruit of Holy Mass, and also helps priests prepare for Mass.
Archbishop Sheen continues by reminding priests that the prayers offered during the Holy Hour are very effective for those we serve. He states “Supplication and mediation and pleading have always been heard by God. Wrath would have been visited on the Jewish people had Moses not interceded” In like manner, he states, we must intercede for those who ask us to pray, those whom we serve pastorally. As a Bishop approaches the altar, and by extension parish priests, they have hanging from their chasuble all of the people who are dependent upon them for prayer. In a beautiful allusion to intercessory prayer, Archbishop Sheen reminds us that skin is grafted from one part of the body to the part that needs it, blood is transfused from a healthy person to a sick one. In like manner our prayers can be and are transferred to the sick and suffering members of the mystical body.
Archbishop Sheen intertwines devotion to the Holy Hour with his devotion to the Blessed Mother. Consecrated by his own devout mother to the Blessed Mother at Baptism, as she laid him upon Mary’s altar in their parish Church, Archbishop Sheen maintained a sturdy relationship with this "woman in my life" throughout the years. He was so devout a client of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he prayed, always, to die on some Saturday or Feast of the Blessed Virgin. It is completely in line with Bishop Sheen's sense of humor that he died on Sunday, December 9th. As a student priest in Europe, Fr. Sheen would travel often to Lourdes, and in the manner of students, sometimes arriving with very few funds, but confident in the Blessed Mother’s loving concern. His confidence was never compromised. As National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Archbishop Sheen gathered with the entire office staff, each day at three o’clock, for the prayers of the Holy Rosary. He was confident that Our Lady would recompense the small investment of time spent away from work each day with an abundance of graces. Again, his confidence was never shaken.
Archbishop Sheen writes that the priest who spends time in his daily Holy Hour stores the fruits of that time in his own heart, as did the Blessed Virgin Mary. He states: “The Holy Hour in relation to Mary is- She “treasured up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51)… Meditation keeps the mind from mechanical response to pastime pleasures… Given an intimate union with Christ, such a person will act differently from anyone else and possess a power that does not belong to unbelievers.” (PNHO 325)
During this Year for Priests we are reminded that, just at the first priests, the Apostles, came from all manner of backgrounds, and had all kinds of personalities, priests today also come from a variety of backgrounds, with various gifts and talents, and also shortcomings and temperaments. Examples such as Archbishop Fulton John Sheen and his own practical meditations on the priesthood cause us to marvel at his priestly example, and at God’s goodness in taking those who are poor instruments and bringing about tremendous good as the Church spreads to all times and places.