TREASURE IN CLAY: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen

TREASURE IN CLAY: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen

Michael Gilchrist

The autobiography of one of the 20th century's best-known churchmen

The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen

(Ignatius, 1993, reprinted, 366pp, softcover, $29.95. Available from Freedom Books)

This engrossing autobiography, completed not long before Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's death in December 1979, is once more available. The many who have admired this extraordinary ambassador for the Catholic faith, particularly those who watched his top-rating TV programs in the 1950s or have read some of his sixty or more books, will welcome this publication.

It tells an extraordinary story of Fulton Sheen's rise from humble origins to the status of one of the 20th century's best-known and best-loved churchmen.

Fulton Sheen was born in 1895, the oldest of the four sons of Newton Sheen and Delia Fulton, in El Paso, Illinois. Sheen's parents had little education and ran the local hardware store, but they were determined their children should have a solid education.

Early years

Sheen's recollections of family life in his early years include strong discipline and a solid work ethic. But he was to be no opponent of corporal punishment: "There is nothing that develops character in a young boy like a pat on the back, provided it is given often enough, hard enough and low enough". When he once complained to his mother of being wrongly spanked for an alleged misdemeanour, his father responded, "I'm sorry, but that will do for the next time."

He recalled that as an altar server aged eight at one of the local Bishop's Masses, he dropped the wine cruet on the marble floor of the sanctuary. Young Fulton expected an episcopal spray after Mass, but instead was asked where he was going to school "when you get big". After not getting the answer he wanted, the Bishop said, "you go home and tell your mother that I said when you get big you are to go to Louvain".

Two years after his ordination, when Sheen began his studies at Belgium's University of Louvain in 1921, he recalled the Bishop's words.

The autobiography provides a close snapshot of small town America and the Catholic schools and universities of the early 20th century, prior to Sheen's call to the priesthood. Years later he observed unwelcome trends that were evident by the 1970s.

"It would seem today that many claim they have a vocation to the priesthood because they want to 'work in the inner city,' or 'defend the political rights of prisoners,' or 'work for civil rights for the minorities,' or 'care for the handicapped' ... No true vocation starts with 'what I want' or with 'a work that I would like to do' ... The first stage in vocation is a sense of the holiness of God".

As a high profile figure, Fulton Sheen rubbed shoulders with many world leaders - including popes and presidents - and his accounts of these add to the book's appeal.

He also sheds light on those who most influenced his style of writing and speaking.

"The greatest influence in writing", he said, "was G.K. Chesterton, who never used a useless word, who saw the value of a paradox and avoided what was trite. At a later date came the writings of C.S. Lewis, who, with Chesterton and Belloc, became one of the leading apologists of Christianity in the contemporary world ... Malcolm Muggeridge, too, has become another inspiration to me. He is always sparkling, brilliant, explosive, humorous".

As Bishop Sheen, he participated at the Second Vatican Council and was named to the Conciliar Commission on the Missions - most appropriate considering his powerful role as a media evangeliser.

While Sheen has much to say that is positive about his experiences at the Council, as well as its later fruits, he acknowledges the problems the Church would encounter after Vatican II: "The tensions which developed after the Council are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a General Council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic".

One recalls Paul VI's observation in the 1970s that "the smoke of Satan" had entered the Church.

Today the public square in most Western nations is almost totally bereft of charismatic, potent Catholic personalities of the calibre of Archbishop Sheen. At a time when secularism dominates the organs of communication, the need for many more Sheens is greater than ever.

Treasure in Clay is enhanced by a wealth of photos covering Archbishop Sheen's long life, although the absence of an index is mystifying, given the numerous names and events of interest that intersect with Sheen's long life and career.

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