Global liturgies pay tribute to Archbishop Sheen, who put Mass in mass media - Catholic Courier

Global liturgies pay tribute to Archbishop Sheen, who put Mass in mass media

With a glint in his eyes and a piece of chalk in his hands, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen demonstrated why television viewers in the 1950s used to choose between "Uncle Miltie" — comedian Milton Berle — or "Uncle Fultie" — the Emmy-award winning archbishop who served as Bishop of Rochester from 1966-69.


In the black-and-white clip from his television show, "Life is Worth Living," Archbishop Sheen kept a modern-day audience of St. John Fisher College professors and students howling with laughter Nov. 18. With hints of a brogue glimmering through, the American-born archbishop with Irish roots gave definitions of blarney — the varnished truth — and baloney — the varnished lie.

"If you tell a woman who is 40, ‘You look like 16,’ that’s baloney," Archbishop Sheen said. "Blarney is when you say, ‘Tell me how old you are. I should like to know at what age women are most beautiful.’"

Thirty years after his Dec. 9, 1979, death, Archbishop Sheen’s wit and his continued relevance also will be on display Wednesday as more than 1,000 parishes in 35 countries on six continents celebrate Masses in his memory, according to Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation in Peoria, Ill. The foundation is dedicated to promoting Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause and publicizing his work.

Msgr. Deptula said the Masses dedicated to Archbishop Sheen may help to demonstrate to Vatican officials considering him for canonization that the archbishop and mass-media pioneer maintains a reputation for holiness. The priest said he is heartened by how fast the idea spread to have a global memorial.

"It began about a year ago as a simple little idea to remember Archbishop Sheen by a woman who lives in New Jersey," Msgr. Deptula said.

One of the highest-profile Masses will be at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City that will feature the participation of New York Archbishop Timothy J. Dolan and Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark. Prior to that Mass, Archbishop Sheen’s crypt under the main altar inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral will be opened to the public to visit from 3 to 5 p.m. The New York City Mass will be carried live on EWTN and Catholic TV and will be rerun on EWTN at midnight.

Locally, Bishop Sheen will be remembered at the 12:10 p.m. Mass Wednesday at Sacred Heart Cathedral, 296 Flower City Park, Rochester.

Although the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization is being supervised by the bishop of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., locals also have been involved, including Bishop Clark, who is a member of the Episcopal Board of Advisers of the Sheen Foundation.

The investigation of Archbishop Sheen at the diocesan level has ended, and 22 documents with information and testimony regarding his virtues have been sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The 22 documents are being summarized into three 1,000-page documents, and this work could be finished as soon as six to eight months, Msgr. Deptula said.

"I hope the summaries will be complete within the Year for Priests," Msgr. Deptula said.

Nine theologians will use the summaries, called the Positio, to determine whether Archbishop Sheen demonstrated the heroic exercise of virtue. If those theologians are in favor, the cause will be passed on for examination by cardinals and bishops who are members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

"One unique thing about the Sheen cause is that the documentation files that are presented are twice as big as most files are because Archbishop Sheen was so well-known," Msgr. Deptula said.

A miracle also must be verified for a candidate to be beatified, receiving the title of Blessed. For canonization, a second miracle must be attributed to the intercession of the candidate and it must have occurred after beatification.

Documentation on two alleged miracles attributed to Archbishop Sheen also has been submitted as part of the archbishop’s cause for canonization, Msgr. Deptula said. One involved a Pittsburgh, Pa.-area baby boy, who had multiple life-threatening illnesses that should have been terminal. The child’s parents prayed to Archbishop Sheen for his intercession. After the baby survived, the baby’s parents named him Fulton.

The second alleged miracle involves a woman in the diocese of Peoria, who was bleeding to death on an operating table. Her husband prayed to Archbishop Sheen for his prayers. Doctors eventually came to the man to tell him that his wife was alive, and that they had no explanation for why she survived, Msgr. Deptula said.

Archbishop Sheen was born in El Paso, Ill., in 1895 and was ordained in the Diocese of Peoria in 1919. He taught at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. He pioneered Catholic evangelism first on the radio for 22 years with his show "The Catholic Hour," and later he began appearing on television with his "Life is Worth Living" show. He was named the titular archbishop of Newport, Wales, in 1969.

Archbishop Sheen biographer Kathleen Riley, associate professor of arts and letters at Ohio Dominican University, gave the St. John Fisher College audience her perspective on the archbishop life on Nov. 18.

He appeared to defy categorization because of his conservatism in matters of theology and philosophy, coupled with his progressive focus on social justice and his emphasis on implementing in the Diocese of Rochester the changes called for by the Second Vatican Council, said Riley, a Lockport, Niagara County, native and an alumna of Nazareth College in Pittsford. Riley did her doctoral dissertation on Archbishop Sheen and spent time developing the Archbishop Sheen archives at the Diocese of Rochester.

She noted that as strenuously as he railed against communist influences and capitalist excesses, he also called for justice and charity in society.

"He was able to bring the Catholic Church into the mainstream," she said, noting that his media popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike helped to break down decades of anti-Catholic sentiment in America.

Riley said Archbishop Sheen saw his position as Bishop of Rochester as an opportunity to test out many of the ideals he had promoted over the years. Most sparked discussion in the local and national press. For instance, he quickly got involved in local interfaith discussions and reached out to poverty-fighting organizations in the City of Rochester. He also called on U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw troops from Vietnam.

Riley said his early exit from the diocese was brought about by a lapse in communication with priests and parishioners over his proposal to sell St. Bridget Church to the federal government for affordable housing. Local reaction was swift and negative, and Archbishop Sheen ultimately withdrew the proposal and offered his resignation about a year later, she said.

In retrospect, Archbishop Sheen has served as a prophetic voice for the changes he helped usher in to the Diocese of Rochester and the American Catholic Church, Riley said.

"His legacy was not one of achievements, but one of focus," she said. "Despite his failures, he was a force for good."

Msgr. Deptula noted that although Archbishop Sheen himself admitted in his autobiography that he had made some mistakes in Rochester, these mistakes demonstrated the archbishop’s humanity.

"We canonize human beings who have to grow in holiness, who make mistakes, who are not always liked by everybody," Msgr. Deptula noted. "I think that’s why the saints give us encouragement. We see his (Archbishop Sheen’s) spiritual life deepen and progress and that should give you and I reason to be saints."

EDITOR’S NOTE: Details on Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization are available at



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