Many middle-aged and older Americans first heard Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on the radio show The Catholic Hour and later would have seen him on the 1950s television show Life is Worth Living. Sheen was probably the most famous Catholic in the United States after the Pope.
This biography portrays the human side of Bishop Sheen, for whose canonization there has been support. Historian Thomas Reeves employs primary sources, interviews, and anecdotes for this biography. He did not, however, receive much help from Sheen; the bishop had a habit of destroying letters and not keeping good records. Indeed, others had to take care of recordkeeping for him when he was the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States. He also had a habit of giving things away. He lived a frugal life even if he dealt with thousands of dollars and knew a wide spectrum of the famous - people like Clare Booth Luce, Henry Ford II, Loretta Young. He made impressions on famous others, like Martin Sheen. He was a great fundraiser and personality yet a humble and obedient person.
Fulton Sheen’s early life was not one of opulence - his family was large and not well off. He knew early on that he wanted to be a priest; the bishop of Peoria, Illinois, Bishop John L. Spalding, saw something in him that told him Sheen was destined for greatness in and for the Church. Spalding supported Sheen in his seminary studies and aided him when he attended Louvain University in Belgium, where he eventually won a doctorate and the honor of teaching there.
He was called back to Illinois by Bishop Spalding’s successor, Bishop Edmund M. Dunne, and tested to see if he would be obedient. Sheen was assigned as an assistant at a poor parish. He did well and was given a teaching post at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., which led to him being asked to do The Catholic Hour radio show. This, in turn, led to him being asked in the ‘50s to host a religious television show called Life Is Worth Living. Although he had strong competition - he was on at the same time as Melton Berle - Sheen was very successful with the show, even winning an Emmy. He almost lost the trophy later when he misplaced it. He was not concerned with praise for himself; he considered it all for God. Sheen found his strength in his practice of being with the Blessed Sacrament at least one hour a day, called a Holy Hour.
Sheen became a target of criticism and attack by the Archbishop of New York City, Cardinal Francis Spellman, who thought he should control how some of the money that the American Society of the Propagation of the Faith was distributed. This conflict was so intense at times that the Pope was involved, but the Pope usually favored Sheen, to Spellman’s consternation. Spellman did finally win one battle by seeing Sheen retired as national director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith headquartered in New York moved to a diocese outside of the city. Sheen had his choice diocese, though, and he chose Rochester, New York. Reeves notes that during this conflict, Sheen would not speak ill of Spellman to the laity, and in public their conflict was not apparent.
Reeves tried to gain access to letters between Spellman and Sheen, but the Cardinal Archbishops of New York have kept them sealed. Sheen’s archives at the time of the writing of this book (2000) were in chaos. They were not being maintained by the closed St. Bernard’s Seminary, now the St. Bernard Institute. They had been offered to the Catholic University of America, but they could not raise the money for the project. The archives seem to be in limbo and receive little financial support from the Diocese of Rochester or other sources. Some materials have disappeared.
Reeves provides a centerfold of black and white photos, a bibliography of Sheen’s books, booklets, pamphlets, and anthologies, endnotes, a list of those interviewed, and an index. This book is recommended for individuals interested in the life of Fulton J. Sheen and for libraries with biographies of Catholics in the United States.
Thomas C. Reeves is the author of Distinguished Service: the Life of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. (2006), Twentieth-Century America (2000), The Empty Church (1998), The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (1997), A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1992), and other books and articles. Reeves’ book served as a source for the Janel Rodriguez’s May 2006 Meet
Fulton Sheen, published by Servant Books.