Born Peter John Sheen on May 8, 1895 in El Paso, Illinois, Sheen was a frail infant. His family moved shortly after his birth to Peoria, Illinois because of his poor health. While growing up, Sheen was often called by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton, and he preferred that name for the rest of his life. Sheen spent his childhood in Peoria and received his calling while serving Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
It is often recounted how as an 8-year-old boy he made a mistake while serving Mass for Bishop John Spalding. During Mass, Sheen “dropped a wine cruet on the floor and it shattered. After the Mass, Bishop Spalding spoke to the frightened boy and made two bold predictions about him. First, the bishop said he would one day study at Louvain in Belgium; second, he told the young Sheen, ‘someday you will be just as I am.'”
Both predictions came true.
After high school Sheen attended St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois and then Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota. He was ordained to the priesthood on September 20, 1919 and after ordination was sent for additional studies. Sheen spent a year at the Catholic University of America before traveling to Louvain to earn a doctorate in philosophy. After that he earned a theological degree in Rome before returning to the Catholic University of America to teach.
He spent 23 years at the university teaching philosophy and his lectures were always packed full. Sheen had a gift for oratory and started recording talks for an NBC Sunday night radio broadcast called The Catholic Hour. His program was extremely popular at the time and was received by a wide audience during the 1930s.
Then everything changed when he was consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951. Sheen was appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York and during that same year Sheen started his famous television show, Life Is Worth Living.
His show reached an estimated 30 million viewers each week. Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality and was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine. His oratorical skills were powerful and his show remains timeless, still being re-run on religious networks.
In 1958 he was appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and then bishop of Rochester in 1966. During this time he had a similar television program called the The Fulton Sheen Program that ran until 1968.
A famous encounter occurred on October 2, 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and embraced a fragile Bishop Sheen, saying, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.” Sheen died two months later on December 9, 1979.
Sheen was a very influential Catholic during the 20th century and his writings, radio shows and television programs have inspired countless people over the years. Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria officially opened his cause for canonization in 2002 and in 2012 Sheen was recognized as “venerable.” While recent events have blocked further progress on the cause, it is hopeful that it will resume and that he will some day be numbered among the canonized saints.
Fulton Sheen and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers
See more in our series on the Saints of the United States.