Educator, author, radio and television apologist,
born Peter Sheen (May 8, 1895) the first of four sons to
Newton Morris Sheen and Delia Fulton Sheen on the second
floor of the family hardware store, Elpaso, Illinois.
He died in New York City on Dec. 9, 1979.
Three grandparents were Irish immigrants. His uncle
financially supported his education in Peoria at St. Mary’s
Cathedral School from 1901-1909, where he took the confirmation
name of John and continued at Spalding Institute (1909-1913),
a Catholic High School run by the Brothers of Mary, where
he enrolled as Fulton John Sheen, adopting his mother’s
Sheen received an A.B. (1916) and M.A. (1917)
at St. Viator College and Seminary in Bourbannais, Illinois,
where his articles on Shakespearean drama in the school
and a string of debating contents
displayed a promising aptitude for writing and oratory.
He completed his studies at St. Paul Seminary in
St. Paul, Minnesota.
He was ordained to the priesthood, (Sept. 20, 1919) for the diocese
of Peoria, under Bishop Edmund M. Dunne.
He earned an S.T.L. and J.C.B. at the Catholic University of America
(1920) and his Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Louvain,
Belgium (1923), on of the foremost centers of scholastic
studies in the Catholic world.
In 1925 Sheen received the Agrege en Philosophe
for his doctoral dissertation, “God and Intelligence in
Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in Light of the Philosophy
of St. Thomas”.
While teaching dogmatic theology at St. Edmund’s
College, Ware, England, he met the renowned apologist G.K.
Chesterton, whose weekly radio broadcast over the BBC inspired
Sheen’s later work as the feature speaker on the NBC broadcast
“The Catholic Hour” (1030-1952).
His dissertation with Chesterton’s introduction
was acclaimed to be a masterpiece in which “The Catholic
Church comes forward as the one and only real champion of
Reason” and earned Sheen the distinction of being the first
American to receive the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International
set the pattern for what followed in his own career in what
he saw as a task to “make St. Thomas functional, not for
school, but for the world… a remedy against the anarchy
of ideas, riot of philosophical systems and breakdown of
Professor at the Catholic University of America-After
calling him back home to his home diocese for a few months
to at St. Patrick’s Church, a poor inner-city parish.
Dunne released Sheen to teach theology at the Catholic
University of America in D.C.
Altercations among faculty concerning standards of
seminary training forced his abrupt reassignment to the
Philosophy Department and the Chair of Apologetics.
Recurrent disputes with academic theologians created
skepticism concerning his scholarly reputation.
A Commonweal Review of Old Errors, New Labels
(1931) indicated he was more interested in imparting
an effect than information. He was accused of plagiarism
and careless scholarship in a review about his work The
Mystical Body of Christ.
Archbishop Francesco Laurdo,
faculty of canon law encouraged Sheen to discontinue his
attempts at popularizing Catholic doctrine on radio and
to restrict himself to the classroom.
John Tracy Ellis, a historian, said that Sheen abandoned
the life of a scholar for that of the preacher, realizing
in a realistic way that it was impossible to serve both
Preacher and Convert Maker-His intellectual statur
remains arguable, but the success of his apologetical career
The contribution of Archbishop Sheen to the
Catholic world and the general American public was incalculable.
His preaching career included: annual Lenten
homilist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1930-1952) and Paulist
Church in New York City, preacher at summer conferences
at Cambridge, England; Westminster Cathedral in London (1925-31);
Cardinal Spellman’s 1948 Pacific Tour; and countless retreats
for priests and religious congregations, which by his own
report, was his most gratifying experiences and occupied
his agenda to the very end of his life.
His no fewer than 92 books were invariably repetitive
reworkings of his public addresses and were “designed to
foster one’s spiritual growth rather than to deepen intellectual
enrichment.” Peace of Soul
, rose to sixth place in New
best seller list and was considered his finest
next to Preface to Religion
His most financially successful was Life of Christ
which was based upon 15 addresses given on “The Catholic
that Religion Without God
was terrible and should
never have been published.
His reputation of convert-maker was well publicized.
In Washington and New York City his courses drew people
from all walks of life and notably Henry Ford II, congressman
Clarie Booth Luce and pro-communist journalist Louis Budenz.
Television Personality-Sheen spoke on the first
televised religious service on Easter Sunday, 1940.
But it was the 129 broadcasts of “Life is Worth Living”
on ABC Network and Admiral Corporation on the Dumont that
established Sheen as the best known Catholic priest in 1950’s
he represented the movement of Catholicism into mainstream
His talks redefined the Church within larger
society by telling stories of Catholics in Terms of their
His telecasts had ecumenical appeal to non-Catholic
the importance of reason in sorting out problems of the
day especially of American confrontation of Communism.
The infusion of anti-Communism into his talks recast
its social meaning as a spiritual component of the postwar
religious revival of the 1950’s America.
He forty-two programs he treated evils of atheistic
Communism, yet at the same time he argued the need for love
of the Russian people.
His program on “The Death of Stalin” aired live one
week before Stalin’s death (March 5, 1953), which drew enormous
media attention and clinched Sheen’s role as the premier
He also attacked Freudian psychology.
Sheen was building his television audience of
millions. He also served as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese
of New York (1951-1966) and as national director of Society
for the Propagation of Faith (1950-66).
The telecasts displayed the SPF logo on the studio
set and in 1955 had reached 25 million dollars in donations.
His generosity from his personal royalties was regularly
directed to Archbishop Toolen for mission work in poor black
neighborhoods in the diocese of Birmingham-Mobile.
Sheen and Cardinal Spellman –As director of SPF,
Sheen had frequent confrontations with his superior, Francis
Cardinal Spellman over the disposition of funds.
In 1957 Spellman demanded that SPF reimburse the
archdiocese for large quantities of powdered milk acquired
by Spellman as head of the Military Ordinariate during the
knowing that Spellman had not paid for the milk, balked
at the idea and led his board of directors to refuse to
pay it.At Spellman’s request the matter was brought to ailing
Pope Pius XII, whose own investigation revealed the accuracy
of Sheen’s position.
repercussions for Sheen were severe.
Spellman, who had direct responsibility for approving
Sheen’s television contract with Admiral Corporation, notified
its president that Sheen was no longer permitted to perform.
Sheen publicly explained that for personal reasons
he was moving on to other projects.
After Spellman’s death (1967), Sheen disclosed
that he could have gone higher had he forgone principal
in his clash with the Cardinal.
Two later attempts to revive the television program
failed to get the prominence of a network timeslot and faded
quickly into syndication.
From 1958 to 1966, Sheen galvanized his work
at SPF, traveling to Catholic missions around the world,
editing the Mission
and World Mission
and serving on the Commission on the Missions at the Second
Vatican Council in Rome (1962-65).
Taken by the spirit of conciliar reform, Sheen
felt poised to create the model postconciliar diocese, a
goal he set out to realize when installed as the sixth bishop
of the diocese of Rochester, New York (Dec. 16, 1966).
Bishop of Rochester-His agenda to implement council
decrees was driven by a collegial approach to administrative
and social justice issues. He immediately created territorial
vicars, a diocesan priest council, a board of counselors
and a new vicar for Urban Ministry.
E spoke out against abortion legislation in a pastoral
letter in 1967, radical discrimination in Kodak Company
and the Vietnam War.
He instituted annual parish missionary appeals and a tax cut on
new church construction to assist the poor in repairing
His crowning ecumenical concept was the Rochester
Center for Theological Studies (1968).
He was more of a man of ideas than of details.
The ideas were successful but were achieved
by local individuals.
seldom consulted with his various committees.
One of his most notable failures was Sheen’s offer
of St. Bridget Church property to the federal government
(HUD) as a site for federal housing.
Learning of the project from the national media,
the parishioners picketed the Pastoral office, diocesan
officers were caught off guard and HUD pulled out of the
deal. Discouraged, Sheen resigned as ordinary (Oct. 10,
1969) a full year short of seventy-five, the mandatory age
Last Years-For the next ten years, Sheen conducted
countless retreats worldwide, until heart disease confined
him to his Manhattan apartment.
In 1969 Pope Paul VI appointed him to the Papal Commission
for Nonbelievers and named him titular archbishop of Newport,
All of the
awards and testimonials amassed during his career, Sheen
cherished the words of Pope John Paul II spoke to him personally
two months before his death: “You have written and spoken
well of the Lord Jesus, and you are a loyal son of the Church.”
He was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral
(Dec. 13, 1979).
At the end of the twentieth century, historians
increasingly note the prophetic quality of Sheen’s ecumenical
sure, no other American Roman Catholic churchperson has
matched the popularity and influence of this mediagenic
bishop whose apologetic touched the lives of millions of
Catholics and non-Catholics.