Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria in 1919, Sheen quickly became a renowned theologian, earning the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy in 1923. He went on to teach theology and philosophy at The Catholic University of America as well as acting as a parish priest before being appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York in 1951. He held this position until 1966 when he was made the Bishop of Rochester from October 21, 1966, to October 6, 1969, when he resigned and was made the Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.
For 20 years as Father Sheen, later Monsignor, he hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour on NBC (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting Life Is Worth Living (1951–1957). Sheen's final presenting role was on the syndicated The Fulton Sheen Program (1961–1968) with a format very similar to that of the earlier Life is Worth Living show. For this work, Sheen twice won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality, and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Starting in 2009, his shows were being re-broadcast on the EWTN and the Trinity Broadcasting Network's Church Channel cable networks. Due to his contribution to televised preaching Sheen is often referred to as one of the first televangelists.
Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, the oldest of four sons of Newton and Delia Sheen. Though he was known as Fulton, his mother's maiden name, he was baptized as Peter John Sheen. As an infant, Sheen contracted tuberculosis. After the family moved to nearby Peoria, Illinois, Sheen's first role in the Church was as an altar boy at St. Mary's Cathedral.
After earning high school valedictorian honors at Spalding Institute in Peoria in 1913, Sheen was educated at St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois, attended Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota before his ordination on September 20, 1919, then followed that with further studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His youthful appearance was still evident on one occasion when a local priest asked Sheen to assist as altar boy during the celebration of the Mass.
Sheen earned a Doctor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium in 1923. His thesis was titled, "The Spirit of Contemporary Philosophy and the Finite God." While at Leuven, he became the first American ever to win the Cardinal Mercier award for the best philosophical treatise. In 1924 Sheen pursued further studies in Rome earning a Sacred Theology Doctorate at the Pontificium Collegium Internationale Angelicum, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.
Sheen was for a year assistant to the pastor at St. Patrick's Church, Soho Square in London while teaching theology at St. Edmund's College, Ware, where he met Ronald Knox. Although Oxford and Columbia wanted him to teach philosophy, in 1926 Bishop Edmund Dunne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, asked Sheen to take over St. Patrick's parish. After nine months, Dunne returned him to Catholic University, where he taught philosophy until 1950.
In 1929, Sheen gave a speech at the National Catholic Educational Association. He encouraged teachers to "educate for a Catholic Renaissance" in the United States. Sheen was hoping that Catholics would become more influential in their country through education, which would help attract others to the faith. He believed that Catholics should "integrate" their faith into the rest of their daily life.
He was consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951, and served as an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York from 1951 to 1965. The Principal Consecrator was the Discalced Carmelite Cardinal Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, the Cardinal-Bishop of Sabina e Poggio Mirteto and the Secretary of the Sacred Consistorial Congregation (what is today the Congregation for Bishops). The Principal Co-Consecrators were Archbishop Leone Giovanni Battista Nigris, Titular Archbishop of Philippi and the Secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (what is today the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples); and Archbishop Martin John O'Connor, Titular Archbishop of Laodicea in Syria and President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
In 1966, Sheen was made the Bishop of Rochester. He served in this position from October 21, 1966, to October 6, 1969, when he resigned and was made the Archbishop of the titular see of Newport, Wales.
A popular instructor, Sheen wrote the first of 73 books in 1925, and in 1930 began a weekly NBC Sunday night radio broadcast, The Catholic Hour. Sheen called World War II not only a political struggle, but also a "theological one." He referred to Hitler as an example of the "Anti-Christ." Two decades later, the broadcast had a weekly listening audience of four million people. Time referred to him in 1946 as "the golden-voiced Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, U.S. Catholicism's famed proselytizer" and reported that his radio broadcast received 3,000–6,000 letters weekly from listeners. During the middle of this era, he conducted the first religious service broadcast on the new medium of television, putting in motion a new avenue for his religious pursuits.
In 1951 he began a weekly television program on the DuMont Television Network titled Life Is Worth Living. Filmed at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City, the program consisted of the unpaid Sheen simply speaking in front of a live audience without a script or cue cards, occasionally using a chalkboard.
The show, scheduled in a graveyard slot on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m., was not expected to challenge the ratings giants Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, but did surprisingly well. Berle, known to many early television viewers as "Uncle Miltie" and for using ancient vaudeville material, joked about Sheen, "He uses old material, too", and observed that "[i]f I'm going to be eased off the top by anyone, it's better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking." Sheen responded in jest that maybe people should start calling him "Uncle Fultie". Life and Time magazine ran feature stories on Bishop Sheen. The number of stations carrying Life Is Worth Living jumped from three to fifteen in less than two months. There was fan mail that flowed in at a rate of 8,500 letters per week. There were four times as many requests for tickets as could be fulfilled. Admiral, the sponsor, paid the production costs in return for a one-minute commercial at the opening of the show and another minute at the close. In 1952 Sheen won an Emmy Award for his efforts, accepting the acknowledgment by saying, "I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." When Sheen won the Emmy, Berle quipped, "We both work for 'Sky Chief'", a reference to Berle's sponsor Texaco. Time called him "the first 'televangelist'", and the Archdiocese of New York could not meet the demand for tickets.
One of his best-remembered presentations came in February 1953, when he forcefully denounced the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Sheen gave a dramatic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, substituting the names of prominent Soviet leaders Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Andrey Vyshinsky for the original Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus. He concluded by saying, "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." The dictator suffered a stroke a few days later and died within a week.
The show ran until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. In 1958, Sheen became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, serving for eight years before being appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, on October 26, 1966. He also hosted a nationally syndicated series, The Fulton Sheen Program, from 1961 to 1968 (first in black and white and then in color). The format of this series was essentially the same as Life Is Worth Living.
In September 1974, the Archbishop of Washington asked Sheen to be the speaker for a retreat for diocesan priests at the Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, Maryland. This was recorded on reel-to-reel tape, state of the art at the time.
Sheen requested that the recorded talks be produced for distribution. This was the first production of what would become a worldwide cassette tape ministry called Ministr-O-Media, a nonprofit company that operated on the grounds of St. Joseph's Parish. The retreat album was titled, Renewal and Reconciliation, and included nine 60-minute audio tapes.
Sheen was credited with helping convert a number of notable figures to the Catholic faith, including agnostic writer Heywood Broun, politician Clare Boothe Luce, automaker Henry Ford II, Communist writer Louis F. Budenz, theatrical designer Jo Mielziner, violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, and actress Virginia Mayo. Each conversion process took an average of 25 hours of lessons, and reportedly more than 95% of his students in private instruction were baptized.
According to the foreword written for a 2008 edition of Sheen's autobiography, Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, Catholic journalist Raymond Arroyo wrote why Sheen "retired" from hosting Life is Worth Living "at the height of its popularity ... [when] an estimated 30 million viewers and listeners tuned in each week." Arroyo wrote that "It is widely believed that Cardinal Spellman drove Sheen off the air."
Arroyo relates that "In the late 1950s the government donated millions of dollars' worth of powdered milk to the New York Archdiocese. In turn, Cardinal Spellman handed that milk over to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to distribute to the poor of the world. On at least one occasion he demanded that the director of the Society, Bishop Sheen, pay the Archdiocese for the donated milk. He wanted millions of dollars. Despite Cardinal Spellman's considerable powers of persuasion and influence in Rome, Sheen refused. These were funds donated by the public to the missions, funds Sheen himself had personally contributed to and raised over the airwaves. He felt an obligation to protect them, even from the itchy fingers of his own Cardinal."
Spellman later took the issue directly to Pope Pius XII, pleading his case with Sheen present. The Pope sided with Sheen. Spellman later confronted Sheen, stating, "I will get even with you. It may take six months or ten years, but everyone will know what you are like." Besides being pressured to leave television Sheen also "found himself unwelcome in the churches of New York. Spellman cancelled Sheen's annual Good Friday sermons at St. Patrick's Cathedral and discouraged clergy from befriending the Bishop." In 1966 Spellman had Sheen reassigned to Rochester, New York, and caused his leadership at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to be terminated (a position he had held for 16 years and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for, to which he had personally donated 10 million dollars of his own earnings). On December 2, 1967, Spellman died in New York.
Sheen never talked about the situation, only making vague references to his "trials both inside and outside the Church." He even went so far as to praise Spellman in his autobiography.
While serving in Rochester, he created the Sheen Ecumenical Housing Foundation which survives to this day. He also spent some of his energy on political activities such as his denunciation of the Vietnam War in late July 1967. On Ash Wednesday in 1967, Sheen decided to give St. Bridget's Parish building to the federal Housing and Urban Development program. Sheen wanted to let the government use it for black Americans. There was a protest since Sheen acted on his own accord. The pastor disagreed, saying that "There is enough empty property around without taking down the church and the school." The deal fell through.
On October 15, 1969, one month after celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest, Sheen resigned from his position and was then appointed Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales (Latin: Neoportus) by Pope Paul VI. This ceremonial position gave him a promotion to Archbishop and thus helped to allow Sheen to continue his extensive writing. Archbishop Sheen wrote 73 books and numerous articles and columns.
On October 2, 1979, two months before Sheen's death, Pope John Paul II visited St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and embraced Sheen, saying, "You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church."
Beginning in 1977 Sheen "underwent a series of surgeries that sapped his strength and even made preaching difficult." Throughout this time he continued to work on his autobiography, parts of which "were recited from his sickbed as he clutched a crucifix." Soon after an open-heart surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, Sheen died on December 9, 1979 in his private chapel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He is interred in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, near the deceased Archbishops of New York.
The official repository of Sheen's papers, television programs, and other materials is at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York.
Joseph Campanella introduces the re-runs of Sheen's various programs that are aired on EWTN. Reruns are also aired on Trinity Broadcasting Network. In addition to his television appearances, Sheen can also be heard on Relevant Radio.
The Fulton J. Sheen Museum, which is operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria and located in Peoria, Illinois, houses the largest collection of Sheen's personal items in five collections. The Museum is located just one block south of Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception where Sheen served as an altar boy, had his first communion and confirmation, was ordained and celebrated his first Mass. Another museum is located in Sheen's home town of El Paso, Illinois. This museum contains various Sheen artifacts, but is not connected to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria.
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Bleecker Street, Lower Manhattan, is named after him.
The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation was formed in 1998 by Gregory J. Ladd and Lawrence F. Hickey to make known the life of the archbishop. The foundation approached Cardinal John O'Connor of the Archdiocese of New York for permission to commence the process of for cause, which was under the authority of the Diocese of Peoria.
In 2002, Sheen's Cause for Canonization as a saint was officially opened by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., Bishop of the Diocese of Peoria, and from then on Sheen was referred to as a "Servant of God."
On February 2, 2008, the archives of Sheen were sealed at a ceremony during a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Illinois, where the diocese was sponsoring his canonization.
In November 2010, it was announced that the cause would be paused due to a disagreement with the Archdiocese of New York upon an unsettled debate concerning the return of Sheen's remains to the Diocese of Peoria.
In 2009, the diocesan phase of the investigation came to an end, and the records were sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican in Rome.
On June 28, 2012, the Vatican announced officially that it had recognized Sheen's life as one of "heroic virtue". This is a major step towards an eventual beatification. From this moment on, Sheen is styled "Venerable Servant of God."
According to Catholic News Service and The Catholic Post (the official newspaper of the Peoria Diocese), the case of a boy who as an infant had no discernible pulse for 61 minutes (who was about to be declared dead at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois, as a stillborn infant) and yet allegedly still lived to be healthy – without physical or mental impairment – is in the preliminary stages of being investigated as the possible miracle needed for Archbishop Sheen's potential beatification. If the miracle is approved at the diocesan level, and then by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican (being both medically unexplainable and directly attributable theologically to Sheen's intercession according to expert panels in both subject areas), then beatification may proceed. Another such miracle would be required for him to be considered for canonization as a saint.
On September 7, 2011, a tribunal of inquiry was sworn in to investigate the alleged healing. During a special Mass at 10:30 am on Sunday, December 11, 2011, at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, the documentation gathered by the tribunal over nearly three months was boxed and sealed. It will then be shipped to the Vatican for consideration by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, concluding the diocesan tribunal's work – which makes up much of the diocese's work on the project.
On Sunday, September 9, 2012, a Mass of Thanksgiving and banquet was held at St. Mary's Cathedral and the Spalding Pastoral Center in celebration of the advancement of Archbishop Sheen's cause, with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., and his predecessor as Bishop of Peoria, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers (celebrating his 25th anniversary of episcopal ordination), in attendance, along with many of the clergy and religious of the diocese and from around the country. Copies of the "Positio", or the book detailing the documentation behind his cause, were presented to Archbishop Myers, to representatives of the Church in other states, and to a delegate from the Archdiocese of Chicago, and to other patrons and supporters of his cause. According to statements made during the service by clergy connected to the Cause, the medical and theological study of the potential miracles needed for his beatification and canonization is currently well underway and at least one is seriously being considered. Due to new rules under Pope Benedict XVI stating that a beatification should occur locally, ideally in the candidate's home Diocese (which is usually but not always the Diocese that sponsors the Cause), it would likely take place in Peoria, the first there. Should he be beatified and canonized, he would be among a select few natives of the U.S. to hold that distinction.
On Thursday, March 6, 2014 it was announced that a Vatican panel of medical experts could not determine a natural cause to a miracle attributed to Sheen; this is a major step on the road to beatification. The miracle: the reviving of the stillborn baby mentioned above who survived intact, so far, without having a detectable pulse at his birth for a lengthy period without explanation. For 61 minutes, while his mother prayed for Fulton Sheen's intercession, the child did not breathe and only took his first breaths as doctors were calling his time of death. Doctors predicted the child to grow up with terrifying effects like organ failure and cerebral palsy. After the child's first 5 months, he was considered to be a normally healthy child. The case will now go on to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, for further review. If the Congregation approves the miracle, then the cause will be passed on to Pope Francis, who will ultimately decide and sign and publish documentation on whether or not to beatify Archbishop Sheen, granting him the title of "Blessed".
On Tuesday, June 17, 2014, a seven-member panel of theologians that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints also unanimously agreed that the aforementioned case could be attributable to the baby boy's parents asking for Archbishop Sheen's intercession during the 61-minute period. Having been evaluated and approved by both medical and theological examination, the case now will be examined by the Bishops and Cardinals who are members and officials of the Congregation, who must give their approval before the case can be forwarded to Pope Francis.
However, on September 3, 2014, the cause was suspended indefinitely, not for problems with Sheen's moral character or with the miracle investigation, but because the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, within whose territory he is buried, had refused a request by Bishop Jenky of Peoria (who is the Actor, or supervisor, of the cause efforts because of his position as Bishop of Peoria) to have Archbishop Sheen's remains moved to Peoria. This needed to be done so the body could be closely examined and first-class relics taken, both of which are among the final steps that take place before beatification and canonization. The cause for his beatification, per the Vatican's directions, will be archived in the historical records of the Congregation for Saints' Causes. The Peoria Diocese said there would be no further immediate comment.
Normally, sainthood causes take many years to progress to canonization; the exceptions to these cases (causes of martyrs, who only need one miracle for sainthood; or where the Pope has granted a waiver to start the process sooner after death) are quite apart from the norm. Nevertheless, the potential for a long delay was very frustrating to many in the area and beyond who had helped and funded his cause, and to his other supporters.
In a press release on June 14, 2016, it was announced that the surviving family of the late Archbishop has petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of New York to allow the transfer of Sheen's remains to Peoria. The press release claims that "On several occasions, the Archdiocese [of New York] has declared its desire to cooperate with the wishes of the family". If the transfer is approved it is possible the suspension in the cause for canonization may be lifted.
In an action brought in New York Supreme Court, JOAN SHEEN CUNNINGHAM, Petitioner, v. TRUSTEES OF ST. PATRICK'S CATHEDRAL, ARCHDIOCESE OF NEW YORK, Respondents, Index No. 154933/2016, and decided November 16, 2016, Justice Arlene P. Bluth ordered the Archdiocese of New York to grant permission to Sheen's family to disinter Sheen's body finding a good and substantial reason for moving the remains of the decedent. The Court ruled that the Archdiocese's objection, that Sheen would not want the disinterment was without factual basis as neither his will nor the doctrine of the Catholic Church prohibited his transfer to Peoria. Given that his elevation to sainthood was being blocked until the Diocese of Peoria could petition for canonization the Court found the family had sufficient justification to move his body.
Selected books authoredGod and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925, Longmans, Green and Co.)
The Seven Last Words (1933, The Century Co.)
Philosophy of Science (1934, Bruce Publishing Co.)
The Eternal Galilean (1934, Appleton-Century-Crofts)
Calvary and the Mass (1936, P. J. Kenedy & Sons)
The Cross and the Beatitudes (1937, P. J. Kenedy & Sons)
Seven Words of Jesus and Mary (1945, P. J. Kenedy & Sons)
Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948, Bobbs-Merrill)
Peace of Soul (1949, McGraw–Hill)
Three to Get Married (1951, Appleton-Century-Crofts)
The World's First Love (1952, McGraw-Hill)
Life Is Worth Living Series 1–5 (1953–1957, McGraw–Hill)
Way to Happiness (1953, Maco Magazine)
Way to Inner Peace (1955, Garden City Books)
Life of Christ (1958, McGraw–Hill)
Missions and the World Crisis (1963, Bruce Publishing Co.)
The Power of Love (1965, Simon & Schuster)
Footprints in a Darkened Forest (1967, Meredith Press)
Lenten and Easter Inspirations (1967, Maco Ecumenical Books)
Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen (1980, Doubleday & Co.)
Finding True Happiness (2014, Dynamic Catholic)