Archbishop Sheen, shown here in 1979, was the host of the program “Life Is Worth Living,” watched by millions each week.
Published: June 29, 2012 in the New York Times.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who died in 1979, does not fit the stereotype of a Roman Catholic saint. Famous for his evangelizing television program in the post-World War II era, he was dramatic and humorous, not humble and retiring. He even won an Emmy.
But this very human man, who lived and worked in New York for much of his life, is on his way to becoming the first male American-born saint. The Vatican on Thursday officially recognized Archbishop Sheen for having “heroic virtues” and granted him the title “venerable.” A church committee will now determine whether it believes that, since his death, Archbishop Sheen has interceded on behalf of someone alive to bring about a miracle, a requirement for the next step on the path to canonization.
For Archbishop’s Sheen’s admirers, the announcement came as an official stamp of approval that meant Archbishop Sheen’s life was worthy of emulation.
“He is the patron saint of media and evangelization,” said the Rev. Robert Barron, whose Illinois-based ministry, Word on Fire, seeks to spread the Gospel through television and the Internet. And the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who often appears on television, said: “Sainthood has come to the media age. In another couple of years we will have the first Twitter or Facebook saint.”
Archbishop Sheen brought Catholicism into the living rooms of Catholics, Protestants and people of other faiths at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was still common in the United States. Wearing his full clerical garb, with scarlet cap and robe, he preached and offered simple lessons, like the importance of laughing at oneself. Signing off at the end of his show, “Life Is Worth Living,” he often raised his hands above his head with a performer’s pizazz.
The show ran from 1951 to 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. “He is, for American Catholics, the leading symbol of what they think of as their golden age,” said John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. “Catholics were coming out of the ghettos that had been imposed upon them; vocations to the priesthood were booming; schools were thriving. He is the symbol of that self-confidence.”
But the case for his sainthood includes more than his television ministry. Away from the camera, he ran the American branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which supports Catholic missions globally. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., where Archbishop Sheen was ordained as a priest, recounted how Archbishop Sheen spent time reaching out to men in trouble, making frequent visits to prisons and death rows. “He practiced what he preached,” Bishop Jenky said.
Archbishop Sheen eventually got into a public spat over money with Cardinal Francis Spellman, then the leader of New York’s archdiocese, and was assigned in 1966 to the Diocese of Rochester, which he considered an exile. He retired three years later, and turned to scholarly work and book writing. “It is a reminder,” said Mr. Allen of such disagreements, “that saints don’t have to be perfect at everything.”
Since 2002, a committee has been compiling testimony about Archbishop Sheen’s holiness to present to the Vatican. The Rev. Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan priest who lives at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, said he had collected many such stories, including one told by the parents of a child on Staten Island. The girl was in the hospital with a 104-degree fever for two weeks when Archbishop Sheen visited. He blessed the child and told the parents that the fever would break that night; it did.
But the main possible miracle being reviewed by the Vatican involved Bonnie Engstrom, 30, who said she gave birth to a stillborn baby in Goodfield, Ill., two years ago. There had been a knot in the umbilical cord, and when the paramedics arrived and placed him in an ambulance, he showed no signs of life. “I was in shock; I started to shut down,” Ms. Engstrom recalled. She started praying, repeating the name of Fulton Sheen in her head: during her pregnancy, she had watched videos of his preaching on YouTube.
The baby’s heart started after 61 minutes, and today the boy, James Fulton, is a healthy toddler, Ms. Engstrom said. “I believe that Jesus Christ healed my son,” she said, “but that his prayers were an integral part of that happening.”