Recalling Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Passing 40 Years Ago
COMMENTARY: Fond memories of the holy archbishop, who loved Mary, the Eucharist and the priesthood.
For a deceased man, Fulton J. Sheen has had a very active 10 years. Actually, a very active last month, to be precise. But on this death anniversary, it is better to begin with fond memories.
Archbishop Sheen died 40 years ago today, Dec. 9, 1979. His beatification was announced three weeks ago, scheduled to take place 12 days from now. Now he is — temporarily, one fervently hopes — the former future-Blessed Fulton Sheen.
Ten years ago I was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York where then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan celebrated a Mass — in the sanctuary above where Archbishop Sheen was then buried — for the 30th anniversary of the Venerable’s death. There were plenty of priests and Sheen admirers and stories aplenty about Archbishop Sheen, including the obvious ones about St. Patrick’s.
There were tales of how, from the pulpit, Archbishop Sheen would dramatically instruct the ushers to throw open the massive doors to Fifth Avenue. “Behold,” the archbishop would thunder about the great statue across the street at Rockefeller Center, “even Atlas bends the knee to Jesus Christ!”
There were stories about how the late Cardinal Terence Cooke, deciding to bury Archbishop Sheen below the high altar of St. Patrick’s, told Archbishop Sheen’s family: “The archbishops who built this cathedral are buried there. Now the one who filled it will join them.”
Most of all, there were stories from those who were present in St. Patrick’s on Oct. 2, 1979, at the crowning public moment of Venerable Sheen’s long life. St. John Paul II came to St. Patrick’s on his first visit to the United States, and, upon arriving in the sanctuary, he turned to Cardinal Cooke and asked, “Where is Archbishop Sheen?”
Cardinal Cooke dispatched an aide to summon the elderly archbishop, then just two months short of his death. The frail man, moved by the honor but also sensing the moment, made his way deliberately to the Holy Father, allowing the emotion of the moment to deepen. John Paul gave him a warm embrace and, paraphrasing the vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, told Archbishop Sheen: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.” I have the image of that historic embrace — two great bishop evangelizers — hanging in the chapel of our chaplaincy so I see it every time I offer Mass.
“I am honored to be the principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass to commemorate his life,” said Cardinal Dolan 10 years ago. “What a marvelous tribute to this devoted, tireless, holy son of the Church, whom Pope John Paul II called ‘Preacher to the World’ in the sanctuary of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the very place I will be preaching tonight.”
Cardinal Dolan, a devotee who uses Archbishop Sheen’s rosary, expressed the hope of all assembled that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification would proceed apace.
None of us present then could have imagined what the next decade would bring.
The succeeding decade has been unexpectedly full of heated controversy, first over the location of where Archbishop Sheen should be buried and now over the Vatican’s intervention to delay Peoria’s plan for an accelerated beatification ceremony on Dec. 21.
But, for today, three considerations for the anniversary of Archbishop Sheen’s death — his dies natalis, or birthday in heaven.
St. Juan Diego and the Blessed Mother
Peoria announced that the feast day for Venerable Sheen, should he be beatified, will be today, Dec. 9. That is already the feast day of St. Juan Diego, but it is only optional, so it is possible that Archbishop Sheen’s feast day could be celebrated instead of Juan Diego if he is canonized.
It would be hard to think of two saints more different than Juan Diego — the simple indigenous man of great faith who received the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe — and Fulton Sheen, the erudite scholar and master of electronic communications. But Fulton Sheen dedicated his books to the Blessed Mother and loved to recite the child’s poem, “Lovely lady dressed in blue, teach me how to pray. God was just your little boy, and you know the way!”
St. Juan Diego was the chosen instrument of the first great evangelization of the Americas. Fulton Sheen has been proposed as a model and intercessor for the New Evangelization. It would please him, no doubt, to be associated with Mary under a title associated with evangelization, as Guadalupe now widely is.
And when, every so often, Dec. 9 becomes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception — as it does this year, Dec. 8 being a Sunday — Archbishop Sheen would be delighted to have his lesser light outshone by the greater light of the Lady he called the “world’s first love.”
The Priesthood and the Eucharist
Much of the accelerated drama of the last six months has arisen from Peoria’s eagerness to have Archbishop Sheen’s beatification in 2019, the centennial of his priestly ordination, which took place in the Peoria cathedral on Sept. 20, 1919. It was on that occasion that the newly ordained Father Sheen made his famous promise to make a daily Eucharistic Holy Hour, a promise he kept his whole life.
A priest is forever, even if the beatification should fall outside of the centenary year. At a time of so much pain, even crisis, in the priesthood, lifting up the example of Fulton Sheen can only serve to encourage priests.
He celebrated his diamond jubilee of ordination just weeks before he met John Paul II. He loved his priesthood and had no doubt about its value in bringing God to the world. Fulton Sheen the preacher was an exemplar of what the Second Vatican Council would teach when he was already 40 years ordained: “Priests have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all.”
The crisis in priestly vocations in many places is a consequence of a lack of Eucharistic faith. Catholics who love the Eucharist will be sent the priests necessary for the Eucharist; where there is little love for the Eucharist, there is no need for priests.
Amid the massive levels of unbelief in the Real Presence, there are contrary signs of deepening Eucharistic faith. One of those signs is the expansion of Eucharistic adoration. For all Venerable Sheen’s fame as a global evangelist, he might just as well be the patron saint of Eucharistic adoration, an intercessor for the thousands upon thousands of faithful who devotedly commit to their adoration hours.
There is something oddly fitting about the ecclesiastical infighting that has accompanied Archbishop Sheen’s cause. It’s certainly not new, but in previous decades, much of it was kept hidden. Now it is more open.
In point of fact, though, one of the most public fights in U.S. episcopal history was between Archbishop Sheen and Cardinal Francis Spellman, the archbishop of New York.
Archbishop Sheen and Cardinal Spellman famously clashed over the funds that Archbishop Sheen raised for the missions; one of their disputes had to be settled in person by Pope Pius XII in Rome. Archbishop Sheen’s integrity was vindicated, and Cardinal Spellman reportedly vowed his revenge. It may be that is how Archbishop Sheen ended up in Rochester, New York, in the first place, not an obvious assignment for a global figure at the age of 71.
The stories were well-known enough that, at Archbishop Sheen’s funeral, as the casket was carried down the steps into the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there were more than a few mordant mutterings among the clergy that Cardinal Spellman himself would be greatly discomfited to see who was joining him.
For his part, Archbishop Sheen declined to rehash the difficulties in his autobiography, noting only that he had suffered in the Church. There were no epistolary recriminations. Venerable Sheen might serve, too, as an intercessor for those made uneasy in seeing the all-too-human sinfulness of the Church and her pastors.
At the funeral Mass in St. Patrick’s, the homily was preached by Archbishop Edward O’Meara, concluding with sentiments suitable for this 40th anniversary:
“Dear friend, Archbishop Sheen, we are all better because you were in our midst and were our friend. We trust you to the care of your ‘Lovely Lady dressed in blue.’ We pray that Jesus has already said: ‘I’ve heard my Mother speak of you.’ Bye now, Fulton Sheen, and God love you forever!”
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.