No Catholic author in Catholic American history has had a more eventful life than Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979). Born in El Paso, Illinois, Sheen was director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States; Bishop of Rochester, New York; a popular radio and television personality; and a voluminous writer. Fulton Sheen’s bibliography reads like a library catalogue. Shortly after his death, his autobiography and his last work, Treasure in Clay, was published: “Carlyle was wrong,” he begins, “in saying that there is no life of a man faithfully recorded. Mine was! The ink used was blood, the parchment was skin, the pen was a spear. Over eighty chapters make up the book, each for a year of my life.” Then he goes on: “That autobiography is the crucifix, the inside story of my life, not in the way it walks the stage of time, but how it was recorded, taped and written in the Book of Life. It is not the autobiography that I tell you but the autobiography I read to myself. In the crown of thorns, I see my pride, my grasping for earthly toys in the pierced Hands, my flight from shepherding care in the pierced Feet, my wasted love in the wounded Heart, and my prurient desires in the flesh hanging from Him like purple rags. Almost every time I turn a page of that book, my heart weeps at what eros has done to agape, what the ‘I ‘ has done to the ‘Thou’, what the professed friend has done to the Beloved.”
The more familiar a reader becomes with Sheen’s writings, the more they reveal the author behind the page. It is an author who, with all his admitted human failings, had a great intellect that he placed at the disposal of Providence and who allowed God to wear him out in the service of souls.
Once, having completed post-graduate work at Louvain University in Belgium, he paid a visit to Cardinal Mercier who was much involved in restoring the works of St. Thomas Aquinas to the Catholic curriculum. “Your Eminence”, he asked, “you were always a brilliant teacher; would you kindly give me some suggestions about teaching?” “I will – always keep current; know what the modern world is thinking about; read its poetry, its history, its literature; observe its architecture and its art; hear its music and its theatre; and then plunge deeply into St. Thomas and the wisdom of the ancients and you will be able to refute its errors.”
The closing chapter of his autobiography is a perfect synthesis of how he exercised his apostolic zeal up to the last hours of his life. Fellow patients at the hospital were taught about Christ’s mercy to sinners and stray sheep were persuaded to return to the fold, and with unbelievers he shared the treasures of his own deep Catholic faith.
But Sheen made one thing especially clear in the several million words of print that he published: there is no true peace on earth, and no promise of happiness in the life to come except at the price of the Cross. Paganism, he would say, is Christianity without the Cross. It is this simple truth that readers of Fulton Sheen will learn, above all, from his voluminous writings.
I have collected the more memorable quotes and excerpts and will slowly but surely insert them all in my pages (see links on column on the right under ‘The best of …’)