By: Luke Arredondo
The Venerable Fulton Sheen is, As Always, a Treasure in Clay
Recently, news spread from the Diocese of Peoria that the Beatification of Venerable Fulton Sheen, which had been scheduled for December 21, would be postponed. The press release gave few details, merely noting that a group of American Bishops asked for further consideration of Sheen’s life before moving ahead with the Beatification. Included in the press release was this key line:
“In our current climate, it is important for the faithful to know there has never been, nor is there now, any allegation against Sheen involving the abuse of a minor.”
So it seems that the delay is not related to any abuse allegations. But beyond that indication, there’s no real context as to precisely who requested the delay or what the precise issue is. What can we make of the situation? How can we process this news?
My own initial reaction to the news was anger and shock. I simply couldn’t believe that Sheen was so close to Beatification and now faced another obstacle. But because I know Sheen’s life and his legacy very well, it only took a few moments of reflection for me to come to an altogether different response: of course this would happen. It almost had to.
Biographers of the Venerable Archbishop have highlighted that in Sheen’s own lifetime, while he enjoyed widespread popularity among the faithful, and even in some cases among people of other religions, he never quite fit in with the hierarchy in America. Sheen seemed always to struggle with recognition.
Early in life, as a college student, he was told by the priest who ran his college debate team that he was the worst public speaker he’d ever heard in is life. As a child growing up on a farm, he was ridiculed by nearby farmers who swore Sheen would never amount to anything because he couldn’t even drive a tractor. Later in life, Sheen would be the most recognized Catholic in America, but he had a rocky relationship with his superiors at times. The most notable case was the rift between Sheen and Cardinal Spellman. As Thomas Reeves has narrated in his biography, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Futlon J. Sheen, Spellman asked Sheen for some of the money he had raised for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith and when Sheen refused, Spellman challenged him. Eventually, the controversy went all the way up to the Pope, who sided with Sheen. This was the final straw for Spellman, who already had a tense relationship with Sheen.
Part of the fallout was that Sheen’s television appearances would come to an end. But the pain and sorrow would in some way follow Sheen for the rest of his career. For instance, when Sheen was finally made the bishop of a diocese, rather than being placed in New York as he had hoped, he was sent to Rochester, likely at Spellman’s suggestion. It should be noted that Sheen did not have a successful career as a diocesan bishop, either. His talent for speaking and writing were highly regarded, but his managerial and administrative skills were somewhat lacking. He resigned after a short time and dedicated the rest of his life to preaching retreats, mostly for priests.
In a very real way, Sheen’s story is one of being welcomed graciously by the simple souls of the faithful, but nevertheless falling short of ecclesial accolades. He was, in that way, a failure. In his own autobiography, Treasure in Clay, written the year before he died, he writes with brutal honesty about feeling embarrassed that he never was given the red hat of a cardinal.
Yet, at the end of his life, he could see that perhaps this was good for him. He also mentions having been rather proud of himself in his younger years, taking his public fame as some sign that he was special or talented or gifted. He admits struggling with vanity, taking pride in his appearance. Those who remember watching Life is Worth Living will recall his joking about always wearing “holy show” for his tapings. But as his life was winding down, he realized that it was perhaps all the better that he never succeeded in his ecclesial career as he’d wished. In some strange way, perhaps the same will be true of the delay in his beatification.
From this perspective Sheen’s beatification, and its delay, is exactly what we should expect. Just when the glory and joy of finally being added to the liturgical calendar was within reach, a few anonymous bishops managed to slow the process down again. This after the protracted battle to have his body transferred from New York to Peoria, which took plenty of time on its own. It’s frustrating, to be sure. But for Sheen, it’s par for the course.
However irritating it may be to have to wait longer for Sheen to be beatified and, God willing, canonized, we should try to be patient. If, as Bishop Jenky firmly believes, Sheen has nothing to hide, further scrutiny will not harm Uncle Fultie. Certainly Bishop Jenky would have a clear insight into the life of Sheen. The initial investigation into Sheen’s life, culminating in his being declared Venerable, was compiled into a 5,000 page volume, and it was compiled under Jenky’s direction.
If anyone would approve of allowing the Church to take its time, and carefully consider every objection, certainly it would be Bishop Sheen. After all, this is the man who read every word Aquinas ever wrote (in Latin!) before he reached the age of 40; he was used to considering objections and I’m sure would be the first to welcome more careful reflection before naming him a saint.
One gets a particular sense of Sheen’s own humility and the way he understood his own frailty from the title of his autobiography: Treasure in Clay. Using an image from St. Paul, Sheen considered the treasure to be Christ and, in his own case, Christ’s priesthood. The treasure of Christ is immeasurable, far surpassing anything else. But that treasure was in an earthen, clay vessel.
I think it is Sheen’s own humility at the end of his life that gives us the greatest confidence of his sanctity. We would do well to remember also that being a saint does not mean living a flawless life. It means, rather, pursuing holiness and Christian perfection through the whole of life and, at the end, having been free even from the desire to sin. Saints are the ones who see themselves as Christ does, who realize their own limitations, and seek to draw near to the Lord through prayer, the sacraments, and penance. For Sheen, the devotion to the Holy Hour was a critical part of his own growth in holiness. As he so memorably put it:
“We become like that which we gaze upon. Looking into a sunset, the face takes on a golden glow. Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain. Something happens to us similar to that which happened to the disciples at Emmaus.”
One way we can respond to the good Bishop’s delayed beatification is, as I indicated above, to try and bear it with patience, to realize that this is just another twist in Sheen’s story, and to trust that it ends well.
But another perhaps more serious response is to join in prayer for the resolution of the inquiry, and in a particular way to do so through adoration. Bishop Strickland has just initiated a year of the Eucharist and will be offering Holy Hours at each parish in the diocese. Attending the Holy Hour to pray for Bishop Sheen’s cause is certainly what Sheen would have us do.
The Holy Hour was special for Sheen because it was a time where, above all, he would place himself in humble honesty before God. It was not the good Bishop who did anything special during those thousands of hours of adoration; it was God’s presence which did all the work. Sheen put it this way:
“…the Holy Hour, quite apart from all its positive spiritual benefits, kept my feet from wandering too far. Being tethered to a tabernacle, one’s rope for finding other pastures is not so long. That dim tabernacle lamp, however pale and faint, had some mysterious luminosity to darken the brightness of “bright lights.” The Holy Hour became like an oxygen tank to revive the breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the foul and fetid atmosphere of the world. Even when it seemed so unprofitable and lacking in spiritual intimacy, I still had the sensation of being at least like a dog at the master’s door, ready in case he called me.”
Would that we all trusted in God this much, and had the humility of Venerable Fulton Sheen. Let us pray for him and for the Church during this time of difficulty, and let us all try to be as simple as a dog at the master’s door, waiting for His call to us. God Loves You!