If you’re sixty-years-old or older you probably remember Catholic archbishop, Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen was the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of New York City from 1951 to 1965 and hosted two television shows; one pioneering show, Life Is Worth Living, from 1951 to 1957 and the other, The Fulton Sheen Program, from 1961 to 1968. In both programs he spoke on the topics of the day and propagated the Catholic religion.
I can remember as a young Catholic boy watching Sheen on TV, dressed in his bishop’s finery and with his piercing eyes. The man had a rapier wit and intellect and spoke to the camera extemporaneously for thirty minutes without the aid of notes or cue cards. He had a regal persona befitting a “prince of the church.” Rarely do we encounter Sheen’s brand of royal chutzpah in these days.
As we now know, Sheen was on very bad terms with his immediate superior, archbishop of New York, Francis cardinal Spellman. Spellman no doubt resented his subordinate’s national popularity. In 1957, Spellman demanded that Sheen reimburse the NYC diocese for the million-dollar value of powdered milk donated by the U.S. government that was distributed to the needy by Sheen’s Society for the Propagation of the Faith. When Sheen refused, Spellman brought the dispute before pope Pius XII who shocked the cardinal by siding with Sheen. Spellman swore to Sheen he would get his revenge someday. In 1966, Spellman arranged for Sheen to be appointed bishop of the inconsequential diocese of Rochester, N.Y. where I live. The Catholic community in Rochester was not privy to the political machinations in New York City and we all wondered how a man of Sheen’s national stature could be installed as the bishop of our small, humble city. I don’t remember too much about Sheen’s short episcopate in Rochester (1966-1969) other than some anti-Vietnam War statements that infuriated my politically conservative father and the fact that he chose to live in a humble apartment at the downtown CYO rather than at a 7000 square-foot mansion in the city’s ritziest neighborhood like his predecessor (see here). Sheen resigned his Rochester bishopric in 1969 and was crowned as a titular archbishop in the same year.
Sheen died in 1979 and twenty years later the process began to have him canonized as a saint. Things were put on hold in 2010 because both the dioceses of New York City and Peoria, Illinois where Sheen grew up claimed title to the future saint’s remains. Imagine the believers of New Testament times fighting over someone’s dead body. On November 17th the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruled in favor of Sheen’s niece that the remains of the former celebrity be moved from New York to Peoria (see the news report below).
Now that the dispute has been settled, the Vatican will put Sheen’s canonization back on the fast track. The church benefits tremendously from the canonization of popular figures like it did with pope John Paul II and mother Teresa.
I may have watched 15 or 20 of Sheen’s television shows when I was a young guy. He spoke eloquently about the Catholic religion but he never once mentioned the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. In contrast, Sheen, like all Roman Catholic clergy, taught a gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. People reverence appealing and influential personalities like Fulton Sheen but he was a false shepherd with a false gospel. Venerating dead bodies is not helpful. Salvation is only by faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, the Savior.