The new one-hour documentary, "Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen—Servant of All," is a succinct and inspiring introduction to the life and work of the Servant of God. The DVD was produced by the diocese of Peoria, IL, who are very enthusiastic and eager that their native son reach the glory of the altars! What is more important to the makers and collaborators on this film, is that Sheen be known by a new generation of Catholics.
What is Sheen most known for? For being a media priest, and later a media bishop. He was the only priest ever to be offered a religious show on prime-time TV. "Life Is Worth Living," a mixture of humor and religious instruction, became so popular (even beating out "Mr. TV" himself, Milton Berle, in the ratings) that Sheen also has the distinction of the being the only priest with an Emmy for "Most Outstanding Personality." He may well be the only priest with an Emmy, period. The Jewish Milton Berle, known as "Uncle Milty" on his TV show, had no problem sharing the limelight with Fulton Sheen, and began calling him "Uncle Fulty."
Fulton Sheen was many things. He was a great American. From humble Midwestern roots he became a brilliant scholar (the first American to garner a super-doctorate at the University of Louvain) and mesmerizing teacher (Catholic University of America) who never lost the common touch. Early on his priestly life, his obedience was tested by his Peoria bishop who assigned him to a tiny, poor, immigrant parish before letting him teach. Sheen threw himself into the role of pastor, preaching dynamically, doing home visitations and bringing people back to the Church until—within nine short months—the community was flourishing.
Sheen was equally prodigious and noted for his practice, from ordination on, of making a daily Holy Hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament, no matter how inconvenient or how tired he was. Many seminarians and priests as well as laity have followed his shining example. Sheen was faithful to this intimate colloquy with "Our Blessed Lord," till the day he died, appropriately, in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
In addition to authoring sixty-six books, Sheen travelled all over the world preaching. He was greeted by immense crowds, but the adulation never went to his head. He took a tremendous interest in the poor of the world, as well as the poor of America, and had a habit of giving everything away. Everything. Money, any gift he received, his own coat. Among many diverse activities, he was the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, reminding Catholics that they are missionaries by virtue of their baptism. His paychecks, royalties, and the many monetary gifts people entrusted to him were handed over instantly to the Society. He never even looked to see the amounts on the checks (a Sister who worked with him testifies that it in the end it totaled about $17 million). Most people are aware of Sheen's practice of the spiritual works of mercy, but it may have been equaled by his practice of the corporal works as well.
Sheen's influence on the Catholic Church in America and the world is not measurable, let alone on those outside the Catholic Church. I once met an old Black minister on the south side of Chicago who loved Sheen. He told me: "You wouldn't even know he was Catholic!" (The minister meant because he was preaching Jesus and the Scriptures!) There is a statue of Sheen inside Rev. Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, CA, along with all the other great American preachers like Billy Graham! Witnesses say that Sheen never missed an opportunity to engage every individual he came in contact with and talk to them about Jesus.
After Vatican II, Sheen became convinced that the renewal of the Church would come through the renewal of the priesthood, and dedicated himself to giving retreats to priests all over the world.
The documentary glides lightly (as did Sheen in his life and writings) over the intense and tragic jealousies and misunderstandings Sheen endured from his fellow clergy and even bishops, but it is clear that it caused him the greatest suffering. However, his moment of vindication came when Pope John Paul II (who learned English in part from Sheen's tapes) embraced him in St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC, in 1979, shortly before Sheen's death, and told him: "You have spoken and written well of Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church." What more resounding affirmation could Sheen have received? The Sister being interviewed for the documentary attests that Sheen was deeply moved by this. I remember this incident clearly (from my playpen). Things were so crazy in the U.S. Church in the 70's, and Sheen was often treated like an anachronism, hopelessly outdated. But faithful adult Catholics around me still loved him, treasured him, and held him up to us young 'uns. They totally read between the lines of JP2G's warm gesture, and the image of these two great men of God was seared on my two-year-old imagination. (Alright, I was a little older than two.)
No less than thirty-three people are interviewed for the film, including relatives, admirers, bishops and priests who knew him, and even Regis Philbin! Fulton Sheen's fervor and well-crafted catecheses live on today in his books ("Peace of Soul" and his "Life of Christ" are particularly touted), as well as his continuing audio, radio and video presence. May he one day be declared a (truly American) saint!
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