"America needs a saint, an American saint…a saint who would be a priest, and preferably a bishop, to prove that sanctity in a nation must begin with the bishops."
—Fulton Sheen, Missions and the World Crisis
It may be said that in every age, God raises up saints who best exemplify the virtues needed in order to combat the particular evils of the time and place. Archbishop Fulton Sheen was one such man. Yet his example is just as relevant for us in the twenty-first century as for those of the twentieth century in which he lived and ministered. There are five aspects of Sheen that are especially relevant to us today and that make his life attractive to us: He was a contemporary American; he exhibited a wonderful sense of humor; he possessed great wisdom; he was a Catholic bishop; and his life was one of holiness.
First, Sheen was a contemporary American. It can sometimes be difficult for us to relate to holy men and women of other historical periods and other nations. The fact that Sheen was “homegrown” and flourished in the twentieth century makes his witness more credible in our eyes.
Second, Sheen’s sense of humor was legendary. Too often we get the impression that holiness and virtue are incompatible with humor and wit, but Sheen refreshingly reminds us that the joy that animates our hearts with the love of Christ overflows into other areas of our lives. His appreciation of a good laugh, especially at his own expense, made him a person whom others wanted to be around. This held true even when his message was countercultural or otherwise difficult for sinful humanity to accept.
Third, Sheen was exceedingly wise. Whereas knowledge pertains to how well one can assimilate and understand facts and concepts, wisdom is a special gift of God whereby one can discern God’s plan and take the right course of action in pursuing that plan. We have many smart people but far fewer truly wise persons. Sheen demonstrates the true wisdom that can be found only in Christ and in the pursuit of his will.
Fourth, Sheen was a Catholic bishop. Bishops are successors of the apostles who have the threefold duty of teaching, governing, and sanctifying the Church. Although all Christians are called to participate in the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel to every nation, there is something especially fitting about a bishop being recognized as preeminent in this role.
Finally, Sheen’s cooperation with God’s grace—as evidenced through his deep spiritual life, daily Holy Hours, and lived holiness—was crucial to the success of his ministry. Never overly proud of his accomplishments or arrogant toward those less learned than he, Sheen constantly credited God for everything good in his life. Sheen was a living reminder that all of us are called to heroic virtue and a life of holiness in service to others.
Through this modest effort to understand better the big picture of the enduring Catholic faith through the insights of this holy man, I pray that we may all come to a greater appreciation of our faith and develop a fervent desire to proclaim it to others in a spirit of charity and joy.
Mark J. Zia, S.T.D., the author of this blog, is associate professor of theology and director of academic enrichment programs at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Zia has a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and an undergraduate degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He is married and the father of seven children.