My Uncle Fulton Sheen
By Joan Sheen Cunningham and Janel Rodriguez
Ignatius Press, 2020
144 pages; $15.95
To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531
We may think we know quite a bit about a well-known person. But when we hear insights shared by a close relative, new perspective are gained. In the case of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, readers can come to a greater understanding of the “Venerable” in My Uncle Fulton Sheen, written by his niece.
In fact, Joan Sheen Cunningham tells readers early in her reminiscences that she came to see him as her “second father.” She was always close to him, with the blessings and encouragement of her own father, Sheen’s brother. Beginning as a youngster, she went with her uncle to New York for her education. Her uncle wanted her to receive the best education she could, just as his parents wanted for their children. He found the best place was St. Walburga’s Academy with the Holy Child Sisters, a school Cunningham loved. Weekdays she lived with a family of friends, and weekends she spent with her uncle, where her informal education continued in churches they visited, visits with acquaintances and friends, and just plain conversing with people on the street. This gave her plenty of time — including years throughout the rest of her life, including with her own husband and children — to be in the company of one of the best known priests in the world.
She shares incidents and stories that, on page after page, draw readers into the life of “the bishop,” as she called him and reveal a fully human person who lived and breathed the Gospel in any situation, not as a saint on paper, but a fully-alive human.
For example, for as serious as his subjects were on his Life Is Worth Living TV series, he always started with a humorous story or joke. That was characteristic of his nature, according to his niece. As a child, Cunningham remember his many visits to the family, relating how “I also knew him to be a fun — and funny — person. He had a ready sense of humor and the most infectious belly laugh.”
She also writes, “My uncle valued good humor as a virtue. His belly laugh was well known. … He always said, ‘If you don’t have humor in your life, you’re lost.’ That’s why he enjoyed the company of my husband so much.”
Cunningham also remembers him as always patient and good-natured. “Whenever he corrected me,” she writes, “he did so in a gentle manner, and I wouldn’t feel badly about making a mistake. I don’t remember him ever getting upset with me.”
Nor did he get upset when people would attack and criticize him. Cunningham tells us about two such persons — a fallen-away Catholic who confronted him on the street and a communist in New York who constantly vilified him in print. In both cases, he invited them to speak with him. In the end, both became practicing Catholics.
His reaction is one of the reasons so many people were so drawn to him — and why he made so many converts, from the rich and powerful like Claire Boothe Luce to the outcast, including a leper, in New York. Cunningham relates how her “uncle made friends wherever he went.”
“He knew as many poor people as wealthy people, and he treated them all the same,” Cunningham writes. “Because he showed everyone the same respect, I was unaware of the class differences between his friends who lived on Fifth Avenue and those who lived in the Bronx. … [H]e thought everybody was equally important — and I was supposed always to be on my best behavior, whether we had guests of any class, or not.”
Through his niece’s eyes, we come to see how really unassuming Sheen was, despite being a household name through his radio and television shows and his many speaking engagements. Cunningham reveals she “didn’t think of my uncle as famous, because he never acted as though he was.”
Readers learn Sheen was drawn to simple, honest people, but he also enjoyed getting together with his fellow TV stars Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason (who were both popular at the same time he was), and they loved getting together with him.
Cunningham’s simple conversational style makes readers feel they’re right there with her, living and observing these experiences with her.
To connect some dots, co-writer Rodriquez beautifully intersperses these memories with facts of Sheen’s life in the same easygoing way as Cunningham recounts familial memories.
So many incidents highlight Sheen’s person. His niece highlights his remarkable generosity. He never refused people who came up to him on the street asking him for money. He was always giving away money and anything else that was needed. At the same time, the missions were a great love of his, as he headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for many years.
This book recalls this bishop who was an avid tennis player and also the one who made a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, gave away so much, went weekly to confession, faced tremendous difficulty and even attacks in the Rochester Diocese when he tried to help the poor, but who never complained, despite the severity of the attacks and even through the many physical sufferings he endured. Instead of complaining, he even cheered other patients in the hospital — and brought some back to the Church.
“That was how my uncle was,” Cunningham notes. “He always tried to do things for others. If he saw you worried or upset, he tried to take your cares away.”
Whether Sheen was speaking to the public or having a good time with family and friends, readers will learn so much about this remarkable man—and how to live a life that is worth living.
As Cunningham emphasizes, “[O]ne thing my uncle always taught me: God is good. ‘Always appreciate all that God does for you, he said, ‘be they small things or big things. And always say, ‘God is good.’ Whether wonderful things happen, or difficulty arises, or sadness comes: God is good.’”
This personal portrait by his niece becomes a testimony to that truth.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.