THE SPIRITUAL LEGACY OF ARCHBISHOP FULTON J. SHEEN
by Rev Charles P. Connor
(St Pauls, 2010, 225pp, $19.95. ISBN: 978-0-81891-311-2. Available from Freedom Publishing)
From the 1930s to the 1960s, US Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was a household name. As the host of the radio program The Catholic Hour and, with the inception of television, Life is Worth Living, millions of listeners and viewers tuned in to him weekly.
To a prime time audience, he presented the truths of the Catholic faith, striking a balance that made his content appealing yet challenging, while at the same time intelligible yet intellectual. Much of the content from his shows re-appeared in the dozens of books he wrote.
Although he may no longer be a household name, Sheen's works still enjoy a loyal following with many of them available in reprints while EWTN screens his original TV programs on a weekly basis.
However, despite this considerable legacy, comparatively little has been written about his works. Here Fr Charles Connor, the author of several books on theology, the saints and Catholic history, and a regular EWTN host, has addressed this deficit in The Spiritual Legacy of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Although references are made to Sheen's career, the focus is on his thought which Fr Connor has organised thematically. Thus, the first chapter, "The Life of All Living", focuses on the nature and purpose of human life, and in particular the spiritual dimension of human beings.
The author then examines in turn Sheen's reflections on Christ, temptation and sin, conversion, confession and the mystery of suffering. The final chapters explore Sheen's thoughts on prayer, the Virgin Mary, marriage, the Eucharist and priesthood.
As Fr Connor explores his subject's ideas on key topics, he uses Sheen's analogies and anecdotes to illustrate and amplify the points made. For anyone who has read Sheen's works, many of these anecdotes will be familiar. For example, on one occasion, Sheen encountered a desperately unhappy woman who agreed to talk to him on condition that she would not have to go to confession.
Having made the promise, when showing her around the church, he opened up the confessional door and pushed her inside. The confession she made was the beginning of a spiritual journey that saw her become a contemplative nun.
Two of the more interesting chapters are those on suffering and conversion, the former because it is one of the chief difficulties people encounter in coming to or sustaining their faith. Without diminishing or trivialising the problem of evil, Sheen spoke and wrote masterfully about the reality of the cross and its centrality in Christian spirituality.
Another of Sheen's great strengths which emerges throughout this book is his ability to recognise and address astutely philosophical and theological trends that were challenges to the faith. In the earlier period of his ministry, he was critical of trends within the wider society, for example, he was a vociferous opponent of communism.
And in the last decade of his life, in response to the problems within the Church in the 1960s and 1970s, he warned Catholics of the dangers of liberalism.
Given his skills as a master apologist and defender of the faith, it is not surprising that Sheen exerted considerable influence on the conversions of a great number of people and references are made to particular conversion stories throughout the work.
The value of the present book is that just as Archbishop Sheen made the truths of the faith accessible, so too does Fr Connor make the Archbishop's ideas accessible, particularly to those less familiar with his works. The author not only displays an excellent knowledge of Sheen's works and thought, but is also adept at synthesising these.
The Spiritual Legacy serves both as a useful introduction to Archbishop Fulton Sheen's writings and reflections as well as an overview of these for those more familiar with them.