Venerable Fulton J. Sheen's insights on the priesthood

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen's insights on the priesthood

Martin Tobin

Martin Tobin, Chairman and Co-Founder of the Fulton J. Sheen Society Inc., has provided articles on Venerable Fulton J. Sheen for previous editions of AD2000.

The following is an edited version of a talk he gave to seminarians at the invitation of the Rector of St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Perth, Msgr Kevin Long, on 19 February 2013.

Martin is now Deputy Principal of the Catholic Agricultural College in Bindoon, WA, having left Trinity College, East Perth, where he held the position of Head of Senior School.

Archbishop Sheen recalled in his autobiography Treasure in Clay that during his preparation for the priesthood at St Paul's Seminary, which included a regular afternoon conference given by the spiritual director, his mind was filled with light, a light that suffused his intellect and illuminated his soul, bringing with it an overwhelming conviction of the certitude of the Faith.

As a result of this experience he recalls that he "never had any doubts about his faith, a faith centred not just on the Creed, but in the Church", and personalised in the Pope as the Head and the Vicar of Christ.

The fruit of this faith included an insatiable desire for the salvation of souls, the legacy of which continues today in the regular publication and republication of his many books, sermons, radio broadcasts and television programs.

Modern world

At the University of Louvain in Belgium he undertook a systematic course of study for his doctorate examining "what modern man is thinking about, and how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas."

His future efforts as a teacher for a quarter of a century were guided by the advice given to him at the time by Cardinal Mercier to "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."

But the real essence of Sheen's genius as a teacher was to make the complicated understandable, and this would be the fundamental nature of his many books, radio broadcasts and Emmy award-winning Life is Worth Living television series.

According to Florence Lee, who worked as Archbishop Sheen's secretary for 16 years during his time as Director of the National Body of the Propagation of the Faith in New York City, "when Bishop Sheen spoke it was as if Christ was speaking through him".

I believe the answer to Sheen's ability to present subject matter on topics such as Hell, Purgatory, birth prevention, marriage problems, sin and penance, death and judgement, the Mother of Jesus, sanctifying grace, original sin and angels, can be found in his great holiness and the means by which he kept in touch with the will of God, namely through the daily Holy Hour that he made for the duration of his priesthood.

As a result he was able to present such ideas and teachings in the most charitable way without leaving his audience hopeless or helpless. His aphorism "that the truth need not hurt if said in charity" is an important reminder to us all.

Sheen recalled in Treasure in Clay: "I can never remember a time in my life when I did not want to be a priest." He never discussed the matter of his priestly vocation with his parents until the day he entered the seminary. Their only response then was: "We always prayed that you might become a priest; if it is your vocation, be a good one."

Later in his autobiography Sheen professed his love for his fellow priests: "I have loved every work to which I have been called or sent. But the most meaningful and gratifying experience of my life has been giving retreats to priests, not only because they brought me into contact with the priesthood, but because the very review one makes of his own spiritual life in order to speak to others helps oneself too. I really wonder if the priests who made these retreats received as much from me as I did from them."

In his penetrating book Those Mysterious Priests, written some five years before his death (he spent the final ten years of his life giving retreats to his brother priests) Sheen explored the duality inherent in the vocation of the modern-day priest: that is, his need to feel like Christ, the holiness of God that binds him to the Father, and at the same time his need to become a victim like Christ for the world's sins.

Priest's role

He talks of the priest's role in continuing the incarnation, the passion and the resurrection of Christ; the need for a sense of humour in the priest who must be in the world but not of it; the frustrations he can expect to encounter in the priesthood; Mary as mother and model of the lonely, obedient and chaste priest; and the indispensable role of the Holy Hour in the spiritual growth and happiness of the priest.

The other recommended book by Sheen on the priesthood is The Priest is Not his Own. Sheen details in scripturally supported texts how the role of the priest is to be considered not just as a priest alone but also as victim: the re-enactment of Calvary. The Mass is then restored to its true status as being both a Sacrament and a Sacrifice.

This excellent book treats many other subjects relating to the life of a priest in an honest down to earth manner: "The Holiness of the Priest," "The Spirit of Poverty" as applied to the life of a priest, "The Holy Spirit and the Priest", "Why make a Holy Hour" and "How to Make a Holy Hour", "The Spirit and Preaching and Praying," and more.

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