Georgians, like the rest of the world, listened to the voice of Fulton J. Sheen

Originally Appeared in : 9721-10/21/17

Some people considered him a Catholic evangelist. Certainly, his voice was unforgettable, and Catholics in Georgia, like the rest of the world, were privileged to hear it. Whether they heard it at a statewide Catholic Laymen’s Association convention or in their living rooms on their radios, or, even later on television, they paid attention to it. Monsignor (afterwards bishop and archbishop) Fulton J. Sheen’s voice was commanding and centered on obeying and loving God. In the 1930’s, as a young priest, he spoke on “The Catholic Hour” radio program. When TV came along, he continued his public ministry there. 


Born in El Paso, Illinois to Newton and Delia Sheen in 1895, he was baptized Peter John Sheen, but was called by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton. When the Sheens moved close to Peoria, Illinois, young “Fulton” served as an altar boy at Saint Mary's Cathedral. After being his class’s valedictorian at Peoria’s Spalding Institute, Sheen furthered his education at Saint Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois before moving on to Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota. He was ordained a priest on September 20, 1919.


Father Sheen pursued further studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and received a Doctor of Philosophy degree at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium in 1923. While there, Father Fulton Sheen became the first American at Leuven to win the Cardinal Mercier Award for the most outstanding philosophical treatise. Then, he was off to Rome where he earned a Sacred Theology Doctorate at the Pontificium Collegium Internationale Angelicum, which later became the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.


Sheen’s priestly duties commenced when he became assistant pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church in London’s Soho Square district. At the same time, he taught theology at Saint Edmund’s College, Ware. In 1926, Father Sheen retuned to the U.S., when Edmund Dunne, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, asked him to be pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church. Nine months later, the bishop returned Father Fulton Sheen to Catholic University. A brilliant theologian, young Father Sheen was to teach philosophy there until 1950.He was consecrated a bishop, and later became auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York.


In addition to all his previous duties, Bishop Sheen had been busily writing books. In 1930, he initiated a weekly Catholic radio program, “The Catholic Hour” on NBC, followed later by a weekly television program, called “Life Is Worth Living.” Well received and well known, he was totally devoted to spreading the faith. His weekly talks on “The Catholic Hour” offered his listeners an insight into Catholicism they’d never had before. He received letters from them asking him to visit places where they lived and, as often as he could, he complied with these requests. Whatever income he received went to the missions.


In the course of his ministry, Bishop Sheen visited and spoke at locations in the south, including those in North and South Carolina and Georgia. Wherever he was, this dynamic priest brought lesser known, but also famous people, to the Church. In 1951, he was guest speaker in Rome, Georgia at the 36th annual convention of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia. Both Gerald P. O’Hara, archbishop-bishop of Savannah-Atlanta and Francis E. Hyland, auxiliary bishop of Savannah-Atlanta, were present on this occasion. Bishop Sheen’s address at the Rome convention was described as “stirring.”


By 1950, he had been designated as the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He was consecrated bishop on June 11, 1951. In the fall of that year, he began his well-received television series, “Life Is Worth Living,” for which he won an Emmy Award. Further fame resulted in more contributions to Catholic missions, a cause dear to him. Appropriately, he headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for 16 years. 


Bishop Sheen was able to be present at sessions of the Vatican Council from 1962-1965, working closely with Father Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. In 1966, he became bishop of the Diocese of Rochester. He resigned as bishop of that diocese in 1969 in order to consider the work he would do in the future. A believer in the practice of a daily “Holy Hour” before the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen died while praying in his private chapel on December 9, 1979, following heart surgery. The cause for his canonization is currently underway. Fulton J. Sheen – a true Catholic evangelist – is now considered venerable in his progress toward potential sainthood.


 Columnist Rita H. DeLorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives. 

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