Fulton Sheen, the American Saint We Need

Fulton Sheen, expressing a deep desire of his heart that the love of Christ take root in America, once wrote:

“America needs a saint, an American saint. After three hundred years of Catholic life, we cannot point to one saint who was born in this great land, who was educated in our schools, and showed in crisis how an American Catholic can relive the life of Christ crucified. We have the greatest Catholic school system in the world, the widest forms of charity work, the most compact army of teachers and religious, but the niches of our churches are empty. .. We must give to the world more than our gifts. We ought also to present it with a saint – a saint to prove we are not as materialistic as some believe; a saint who would be a priest, and preferably a bishop, to prove that sanctity in a nation must begin with the bishops.”

The irony of Sheen’s words are clear to us today: Sheen unknowingly prophesied about himself, the American-born bishop whose beatification will be celebrated within the next year in Peoria, Illinois and whose eventual canonization is almost certain.

For a brief look at why Fulton Sheen’s example is more timely for us today than even in his own day, consider the following slightly modified excerpt from the introduction to my book The Enduring Faith and Timeless Truths of Fulton Sheen (Cincinnati: Servant, 2015).

It may be said that in every age, God raises up saints who best exemplify the virtues needed in order to combat the particular evils of the time and place. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was one such man. Yet his example is just as relevant for us in the twenty-first century as for those of the twentieth century in which he lived and ministered.

There are five aspects of Sheen that are especially relevant to us today and that make his life attractive to us: He was a contemporary American; he exhibited a wonderful sense of humor; he possessed great wisdom; he was a Catholic bishop; and his life was one of holiness.

First, Sheen was a contemporary American who was born in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 and died in New York in 1979. Commonly when we think of the saints of the Church, we instinctively think of Europe, or at least somewhere other than the United States. Whereas it can sometimes be difficult to relate to holy men and women of other historical periods or nations, the fact that Sheen was “home grown” and flourished in the twentieth century allows his witness to be credible in our eyes.

Second, Sheen’s sense of humor was legendary. Too often we get the impression that holiness and virtue are incompatible with humor and wit, but Sheen refreshingly reminds us that the same joy which animates our hearts with the love of Christ overflows into other areas of our lives. His appreciation of a good laugh, especially when at his own expense, made him a person whom others wanted to be around, even when his message was counter-cultural or not “politically correct.”

Third, Sheen was exceedingly wise. Whereas knowledge pertains to how well one can assimilate and understand facts and concepts, wisdom is a special gift of God whereby one can discern God’s plan and take the right course of action in pursuing that plan. We have many smart people both in our country and abroad, but far fewer truly wise persons. Sheen demonstrates the true wisdom that can be found only in Christ and in the pursuit of His will.

Fourth, Sheen was a Catholic bishop. Bishops are successors of the apostles who have the three-fold duty of teaching, governing, and sanctifying the Church. Although all the baptized are called to participate in the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel to every nation, there is something especially fitting about a bishop being recognized as preeminent in this role.

Finally, Sheen’s cooperation with God’s grace as evidenced through his deep spiritual life, daily Holy Hours, and lived holiness was crucial to the success of his ministry. Never overly-proud of his accomplishments or arrogant towards those less learned than he, Sheen constantly credited God for everything good in his life. Sheen was a living reminder that all of us are called to heroic virtue and a life of holiness in service to others.

In a time when our culture is deeply hurting due to the lies of the sexual revolution; the problem of atheism; the evils of some clergymen; and the increasing demand that political correctness be our new god, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen has been sent by God to help us stay on the right track. Through his nearly seventy books which he authored, through his example, and through his intercession, may we be led to a greater appreciation of our faith and develop a fervent desire to proclaim it to others in a spirit of truth, charity and joy.

Mark J. Zia