MY UNCLE FULTON SHEEN
by Joan Sheen Cunningham and Janel Rodriguez
Ignatius Press, San Francisco
Paperback: 144 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One of the most prominent churchmen in the 20th century was Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895–1979). Author of numerous books, and presenter of the renowned Life is Worth Living series on television, his great influence on the lives of millions of people cannot be underrated. For example, the future Pope John Paul II improved his command of English by watching episodes of Life is Worth Living.
The fact that many of his works are still in print, and various videos and audio files of his presentations are readily available on the internet, for example on YouTube, attest to his enduring popularity and influence.
As its title suggests, My Uncle Fulton Sheen is written by his niece Joan Sheen Cunningham. The daughter of Sheen’s younger brother Joseph, she enjoyed a close relationship with her uncle, with whom she spent a lot of her childhood. On his initiative, she was a boarder at a prestigious Catholic girls’ school, and she stayed with him in Washington, and New York during the holidays.
While her reflection is structured as a survey of Fulton Sheen’s life, much of the work focuses on exploring his character and virtues. The portrait she paints
correlates many of the observations made about Sheen by others. Her observations are complemented by those of her co-author, Janel Rodriguez.
Born Peter John Sheen in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 – the name Fulton by which he was known was his mother’s maiden name – Sheen’s parents prioritised a sound education for their four sons; thus, Cunningham’s father was to become a lawyer.
A brilliant student, Fulton Sheen discerned a vocation to the priesthood, and was ordained a priest in 1919. He subsequently undertook further studies at the Catholic University of America, Louvain and Rome. After teaching at St Edmund’s College, Ware, and despite requests for him to teach at tertiary institutions, his bishop recalled him, assigning him to parish duties.
Despite protests from others, Sheen, obedient to his bishop, gracefully accepted the position without complaining. His bishop was later to remark to him that he did this step to see whether Sheen was truly obedient, and happily released him to lecture at the Catholic University in Washington.
Sheen was later to become the director for the Propagation of the Faith, while serving as an Auxiliary Bishop of New York. He was Bishop of Rochester from 1966 to his resignation in 1969 due to ill health, and died in 1979.
Sheen was extremely personable and showed genuine empathy and concern for people. He had friends from all social backgrounds, and Cunningham notes that he spoke to people from low-income backgrounds with the same courtesy and deference with which he spoke to wealthy and prominent people. Sheen interacted well with people and, on more than one occasion in the work, Cunningham draws attention to his sense of humour.
Despite his academic acumen, being a faithful Christian and a priest were at the centre of Sheen’s own self-understanding. As a young priest, he made the commitment to keep a holy hour each day and, throughout his priestly ministry, advocated the practice, particularly to other priests.
Cunningham also notes his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, reflected for example in his work, The World’s First Love, as well as his practice of celebrating Mass in honour of the Virgin Mary each Saturday.
As a priest, Sheen prioritised the salvation of souls, never overlooking any opportunity to bring people closer to God. For example, while in hospital for an extended period on account of his heart condition as an elderly man, he reached out to and provided spiritual comfort to other patients.
He was also renowned for the number of converts whom he instructed, and brought into the Church, a facet of his ministry that this work draws attention to.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this book is that Cunningham’s assessment on Sheen’s time as Bishop of Rochester from 1966 to 1969 differs markedly from that of Sheen himself. In reading his auto-biography, Treasure in Clay, this reviewer formed the impression that Sheen regarded this period of his ministry as being largely a failure.
Cunningham’s assessment of his role as the ordinary of the diocese is more positive, noting that he was a diligent bishop, always looking for creative ways of reaching out to the laity in his diocese. Of particular concern to him was the poverty in which many of them lived, due to an economic downturn in the locality. Some of the projects Sheen mooted to try and relieve poverty, for example tearing down a church with a small and dwindling congregation and using the land to build social housing, were met with stiff opposition.
He also showed a fatherly concern for the priests of his diocese. By teaching in the semi-nary, he got to know those who would serve as priests and, on at least one occasion, refused to ordain a deacon to the priesthood as he deemed him unsuitable.
Throughout the work Cunningham also challenges some of the criticisms of her uncle. For example, in response to the allegation that he was vain in his grooming and dress, Cunningham responds by noting that Sheen lived and worked in an era that expected extremely high standards of personal grooming and attire, particularly of professionals.
My Uncle Fulton Sheen is an extremely engaging, and highly interesting portrait of the Venerable Fulton Sheen. Written by a relative who enjoyed a close relationship with Sheen, readers are given a unique insight into the life of this highly influential and saintly clergyman.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.