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June 11 The Emmy winning Bishop - Fulton Sheen

Fulton Sheen was consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951. A charismatic speaker and pioneer of religious media in the 20th century, he would be nominated three times for Emmys for his broadcasts. Eventually winning The Most Outstanding Personality Award in 1953.


From 1930 to 1950 he regularly appeared on the “The Catholic Hour” radio programme and in 1951 launched the popular “Life is Worth Living” television series. One of the first televangelists, the show, was scheduled in a prime time slot on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m and did surprisingly well even up against such ratings giants as Frank Sinatra. Life and Time magazine ran feature stories on Bishop Sheen and the number of stations carrying Life Is Worth Living jumped from three to fifteen in less than two months. The response from the audience was also considerable with fan mail flowing in at a rate of 8,500 letters per week and there were four times as many requests for tickets as could be fulfilled and in 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for his efforts. Accepting the reward by saying, "I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." The programmes drew as many as 30 million people weekly. He retired from the programme suddenly – and there were rumours that this was due to internal church politics involving New York’s powerful Cardinal Spellman.

In 1958, Sheen became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, serving for eight years. In this capacity between 1962 and 1965, he attended all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and worked closely with Father Joseph Ratzinger, who was a theological expert on the commission for mission. In a 2012 interview with Vatican Radio, Fr Ratzinger who was now Pope Benedict recalled how "Fulton Sheen ... would fascinate us in the evenings with his talks." After the Council he was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, and his fame lead him to convert a number of notable figures to the Catholic faith, including automaker Henry Ford II, Communist organizer Bella Dodd and violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler.

According to the foreword written for a 2008 edition of Sheen's autobiography, Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, Catholic journalist Raymond Arroyo wrote that "In the late 1950s, the government donated millions of dollars' worth of powdered milk to the New York Archdiocese. In turn, Cardinal Spellman handed that milk over to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to distribute to the poor of the world. On at least one occasion, he demanded that the director of the Society, Bishop Sheen, pay the Archdiocese for the donated milk. He wanted millions of dollars. Sheen refused as these were funds donated by the public to the missions, funds Sheen himself had personally contributed to and raised over the airwaves. He felt an obligation to protect them, even from the itchy fingers of his own Cardinal." Spellman took the issue directly to Pope Pius XII, pleading his case with Sheen present. The Pope sided with Sheen. Spellman later confronted Sheen, warning him that he would get even. Spellman cancelled Sheen's annual Good Friday sermons at St. Patrick's Cathedral and discouraged clergy from befriending the Bishop. In 1966, Spellman had Sheen reassigned to Rochester, New York, and caused his leadership at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to be terminated. To his great credit, Sheen never talked about the situation, only making vague references to his "trials both inside and outside the Church." He even went so far as to praise Spellman in his autobiography.

Sheen was known to be alternately charming and ruthless, there was hardness sometimes which can be seen today in Americas notorious culture wars. Sheen showed concern with contemporary issues but denigrated anyone who showed compassion towards criminals, addicts, sex workers, counter-cultural youth, and gay people, shouting in his sermon "False Compassion": "“There are sob sisters, there are the social slobberers who insist on compassion being shown to the muggers, to the dope fiends, to the throat slashers, to the beatniks, to the prostitutes, to the homosexuals, to the punks…. so that today the decent man is practically off the reservation.” However, he was not consistently reactionary, denouncing the Vietnam War and creating ecumenical housing initiative particularly for the black community.

Because of the sheer volume of material, it would be inevitable that sometimes Sheen’s messages were mixed and defensive, and especially after he accepted ordination to the Episcopacy. A famous essay on celibacy begins with the express goal of dispelling the assumption that marriage is less holy in the divine plan than celibacy. He boldly proclaims that both are good, complementary, and not competitive. However closely read the tone of the essay is one of condescending superiority. Marriage belongs to the secular world, uses alternating current, travels by roadway, labours with hand tools and reason, etc. Celibacy, by contrast, deals with the spiritual world, uses direct current, travels by air, and positively vibrates with intuition, poetry, and dreams. Although he may have revealed himself when he says “It is because of His love that I loathe myself. It is His mercy which makes me remorseful.”

In 2002, Sheen's Cause for Canonization was officially opened by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, from then on Sheen was referred to as a "Servant of God". In 2008, the archives of Sheen were sealed at a ceremony during a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Illinois, marking the end of the diocesan phase of the investigation. The records were sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican in Rome, four years later, the Vatican announced officially that it had recognized Sheen's life as one of "heroic virtue” and he was styled "Venerable Servant of God". A miracle attributed to him was the inexplicable recovery of James Fulton Engstrom, a boy stillborn in September 2010 to Bonnie and Travis Engstrom in Goodfield near Peoria. Engstrom's parents prayed for the intercession of Sheen for their son's recovery, the infant had no discernible pulse for 61 minutes and was about to be a stillborn infant and yet still lived to be healthy – without physical or mental impairment. The miracle was eventually approved after considerable investigation but the beatification has been postponed, This was not due to any suggestion of personal misconduct by Sheen but the concerns focus on The Diocese of Rochester where Sheen served as an auxiliary bishop from 1959 to 1966. Rochester is the first diocese in New York to seek bankruptcy protection amid a new wave of abuse lawsuits driven by a one-year window in the state to file claims previously barred by the statute of limitations. Although there are no allegations against Sheen himself, his beatification has been delayed at the request of a “few U.S. bishops,” to review Sheens role in priests’ assignments.

This raises broader questions about how we not only potential candidates for sainthood are evaluate in a time of unprecedented historical Scrutiny. Probably the best-known, and most delicate case is John Paul II, who was beatified in 2011, just six years after his death, by Pope Benedict XVI, and canonized three years later in 2014 by Pope Francis. Particularly John Paul II’s handling of Mexican Father Marcial Maciel the, founder of the Legion of Christ and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick who both eventually admitted to being serial abusers confronted with persistent allegations and evidence. However sainthood is not like a knighthood, it definitive and not revoked. Sainthood is also not a declaration of personal perfection, as anyone who lived with a saint would know! But more akin to a recognition that sanctity is achievable even amid flaws and failures. He was certainly an effective communicator and evangelist, and was in a leadership position of a time of great flux and change in the Church. This maybe summed up by a quote from one of the many books he published The Priest Is Not His Own “The average American is physically, biologically, psychologically and neurologically unable to do anything worthwhile before he has a cup of coffee. And that goes for prayer too. Even sisters in convents whose rules were written before electric percolators were developed would do well to update their procedures. Let them have coffee before meditation.”


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