Driving down the streets of El Paso, Illinois, you will notice a few things. Located just north of Bloomington on Interstate 39, you can expect the handful of highway amenities like gas stations, fast food and hotel chains. There is one grocery store for the whole town. Corn and soybean fields extend out in every direction; central Illinoisans will pride themselves on having the most fertile soil in the world. You will see American made trucks, you will see quaint farmhouses, and if you venture a few blocks north of Main Street, you may come across St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Peter John Sheen, who would come to be known by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton, was born a stone’s throw away from the Church in the upstairs of a hardware store. The hardware store is now long-gone. At the time of his birth, the red-brick Church was under construction and it still stands today. I’ve been to mass a few times here on weekends in town visiting Brian and his family. Their church fits around 200 people comfortably. Everything about this small town makes life feel simple, calm, and quiet.
That begs the question, how the heck did the Venerable Archbishop Sheen originate from such a place? He is not simple, nor calming, nor quiet. If you’ve cracked open one of his books, you may find him to be a complicated writer whose profound and lofty works require hours of contemplation. If you tuned in to his preaching, you may conclude that he is confrontational, and certainly a bit rough. He is a loud, thunderous speaker. On his television broadcast, Sheen would often be elegantly dressed in his Bishop’s clerics including fascia cope. He would strike you more as authoritative royalty than a small-town farm boy.
Fulton Sheen was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria in 1919, and went on to further his education by obtaining his Doctorate of Philosophy in Belgium. His small-town roots did not prevent him from becoming a world traveler and a national icon. Upon his return to the United States, Sheen began a television and radio program broadcasted from coast to coast. His message contains a timelessness about it, ringing true and clear even in today’s confusion.
What was Archbishop Fulton Sheen clear about? He spoke clearly on the person of Jesus Christ and the importance of having a relationship with Him. Sheen emphasized that Christians ought to be people of joy, as the title of his program “Life is Worth Living” implies. His sense of humor and his zeal for evangelization demonstrates a clear thirst for souls. Archbishop Fulton Sheen loved the Blessed Virgin Mary. He always spoke highly of the power of the Rosary and praised the comfort that it could bring to the broken:
“The Rosary is the best therapy for these distraught, unhappy, fearful, and frustrated souls, precisely because it involves the simultaneous use of three powers: the physical, the vocal, and the spiritual, and in that order.”
Today more so than ever, let us remember both our simple roots and the beautiful complexity of our faith. Sheen was born above a small-town hardware store, Jesus was born in the stable of a small-town inn. Both men went on to preach to crowds of great numbers, speaking with authority and truth. These two men somehow both remained humble servants, sharing the good news not for their own glory, but for the salvation of mankind. Let us be energized to share the timeless gospel message like Venerable Fulton Sheen. Sheen died on December 9th 1979, the day after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Let us also pray for his Canonization.
Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, pray for us.