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The Lessons we learned from Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

April 13, 2015
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Catholic University of America – Washington, DC
April 13, 2015
The Fulton Sheen story is about a remarkable man whose life spans one of the most exciting periods in Church history, from an era characterized by growth, discipline, evangelism, self-confidence, and exclusivity, to the post-Vatican II period known for its change, excitement, hope, dissent, disillusionment, ecumenism, and openness to the modern world. Fulton Sheen was a first class theologian and philosopher and one of the American Church’s most prolific writers. Over a period of 54 years, he authored 64 books and published 65 booklets, pamphlets, magazine and newspaper articles, and printed radio and television talks. In the early 1950s, he wrote for two regular newspaper columns, God Love You and Bishop Sheen Writes (syndicated in the secular press and running for 30 years). He edited two magazines.
Fulton Sheen prayingWhen Sheen began his career on public television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became wildly popular overnight, competing against shows starring Mr. Television, Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. One television critic quipped, “Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is is sensational.” In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, beating out Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After the Emmy, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. No Catholic bishop had burst on the world stage with such power as Sheen wielded since long before the Protestant Reformation. By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.
Archbishop Sheen taught us that faith cannot be relegated to the protective atmosphere of an isolated glasshouse. In today's world a strong faith can only develop within the public square in a challenging debate and dialogue with the real world and with the concrete realities and experiences of the individuals and the interactions of individuals who make up society.
His critics were many – and nothing is quite like clerical and ecclesial jealousy! We learned from him that when faith becomes an ideology, it loses its true identity. When a particular form of faith becomes a dominant ideology, it can be transformed against itself, deceive itself and can easily explode into aggressive rejection, resulting in cynicism, hostility, or even worse – indifference. Fulton Sheen taught us that the Gospel is Good News and must always be presented with enthusiasm that is the inevitable characteristic of those who believe that they are bearers of good news.  The joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is never alien to the world of any time.
Fulton Sheen TIMESheen was frequently outspoken and often stirred controversy with his strong statements on communism, socialism, the Spanish Civil War, World War II diplomacy, psychiatry, secularism, education, and the left in general. He defied efforts to place him on the political left or right. He was equally critical of capitalists, irresponsible labor union leaders, and idealistic advocates of the welfare state. He supported reform, eager to help create a world rid of inequality, insensitivity, hatred, crime, and corruption. In 1967, he fell under attack from the right by opposing the Vietnam War. He was the first American bishop to attempt to implement in an Upstate New York diocese the full teachings of the Second Vatican Council, producing severe criticism from conservatives. He called those years “his exile.” I was part of his exilic period as a young boy in grade school from 1966-1969 in my home diocese of Rochester, New York!
“Catholic journalism” – and “Catholic Media” are not conformism but must also be able to capture in writing, style and creative presentation the real identity of the Church.  Catholic journalists, Catholic communicators and the Catholic press must constantly come up with new forms of expression and communications, able to tell the ancient story in fresh, new and enticing ways. This requires a genuine ecclesial sense and an awareness of the “sensus fidelium.”
More than anything, Fulton Sheen taught us that a Church which retreats from the world and from the culture that surrounds it will not be truly missionary. The Church must be in dialogue with the world in which it exists. This sense of dialogue with men and women of culture and of different understandings of life is something that distinguishes both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.
Fulton SheenFulton Sheen was both a catechist and an evangelist. Not all catechists can evangelize and not all evangelists can catechize and teach! Sheen was able to do both! Our evangelization must be open to the people of our time and address the challenges they face in their search for truth and meaning. And once we have ignited or reignited the flame of faith, we must strive to teach others the Good News of Jesus and the Church. The great challenge before those of us involved in Catholic television, Catholic broadcasting, and communication of any form is that we preach to the gallery, communicate in an echo chamber, act like we are the only true elect of the Church, the only remaining faithful who have not lost their way! In such a mindset, the only way to deal with the world is to flee from it, and construct our broadcast platforms in inaccessible, remote places, to build hermetically sealed fortresses that keep the outside world outside! Communications becomes an internal affair, preaching to the restricted gallery of the saved, the clean and the pure. Fulton Sheen showed us another way. He went to the airwaves and big networks to share the message of Christ and the Church.
Just as Jesus bonded himself with the unclean, with sinners and those living on the fringes of society, so did Fulton Sheen with his vast array of friends, pen pals, media moguls, ordinary folks, and people from every walk of life. Jesus taught us that by "being with people" he also healed, restored, renewed and reconciled broken humanity. The stories of Sheen doing the same thing are legion.
The dominant word of the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis is la periferia: “the periphery”, “the outskirts”, “the frontiers”.   Pope Francis constantly calls the Church to boldly break out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only the outskirts of place but also to the outskirts and the frontiers of our existence; those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of ignorance; the outskirts of indifference, the frontiers of human wretchedness.  And he adds when the Church does not break out of herself in that way she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself in. “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”.
Fulton Sheen NBCSheen, like Pope Francis, had an amazing ability to find simple words to pose fundamental questions about the life of the Christian and of the Church. He continues to challenge us to become “the tender embrace of the Church” for all who are marginalized and on the fringes and on the frontiers of the society in which we live. Long before John Paul II invited us not to be afraid; before Benedict asked us to fall in love again with Jesus Christ, and Francis begged us not to be locked up in Catholic ghettos, Fulton Sheen was reaching out to the peripheries big time! May he continue to inspire us, teach us, guide us and intercede for us from his new broadcast platform in heaven.