Fulton J. Sheen, the TV evangelizer, died on December 9, 1979. Alexis Walkenstein has worked in media and Church communications, and has found the late archbishop to be a great help to her. In a compilation of Sheen quotes she’s put together, she focuses on some of the themes of his writings: the mystery of God, freedom, God’s love, sin, and Jesus. “As you sit at the feet of this great teacher,” she writes, “contemplate the inescapable love of God for you personally and how he is calling you through Sheen’s words. While reading, try to surrender your will to God’s divine will, and embrace your vocation of love in imitation of Christ’s.” Walkenstein talks about life with Archbishop Sheen, the book, and his cause for canonization. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do we need Fulton Sheen now?
Alexis Walkenstein: I believe we need Bishop Sheen’s catechesis and intercession in the Church now for renewal — Bishop Sheen called people out of sin and into new life by reminding who we are as sons and daughters of God. Sheen wanted others to know the joy and freedom he knew in Jesus Christ for a life worth living. We need heroic priests, bishops, and lay people to contradict the world in this post-Christian society of non-practice and in some cases non-belief. Sheen boldly teaches on every manner of topic and helps the Church embrace her call and helps individuals embrace their vocational call — be it priesthood, religious life, married life or single life.
Lopez: Who needs him most? How can he help bishops and those around him in a particular way?
Walkenstein: What I love about Bishop Sheen is that he is for everyone. He’s a witness for bishops and priests, as well as one who didn’t shrink back from helping to form marriages and teach pastorally on the dignity of the Sacrament of Marriage. It’s easy to become a weak Church void of power and to become a worldly Church swayed by the influence of what’s popular. Our bishops need to remember that their main role in the office of bishop is to teach and instruct. Bishop Sheen fearlessly proclaimed Church teaching so that those around him and those listening to his broadcasts had an informed conscience.
Sheen was fearless and lived his episcopal office in such a way that it impacted everyone around him. He was urgent for souls and took his office seriously to win souls to Christ through conversion. He was convinced of the One he loved — Jesus and made his name known to everyone he met. The Church overall needs less fear of repercussions of proclaiming the Gospel and more witness. As an intercessor, Venerable Servant of God Sheen will help with a restoration and renewal of dioceses. He will also help with a renewal in restoring a culture of vocation — not just to priesthood and religious life, but to the vocation of marriage, especially in a hook-up culture where Sacramental Index is plummeting.
Lopez: How does intercession work exactly? To some ears it may seem like you’re worshipping him.
Walkenstein: God is so generous that in his economy he has given us the angels and saints in the mystical body of Christ. We don’t worship the saints or saints-to-be, like Bishop Sheen. Rather, we have these spiritual friends who can help us achieve a life of holiness and appeal to God on our behalf in the areas of our need. For example, many who knew Bishop Sheen recall the very many things he did for people, by way of helping them understand the faith, or meet a spouse, or be delivered from a sin, or receive in their poverty. How much more would Venerable Sheen do from his position in heaven? The saints are given to help us with Christ. Why wouldn’t we urge them on for us?
Lopez: What was his spirituality?
Walkenstein: I like to think of Bishop Sheen’s spirituality as a charism of being present. He had this special ability to make himself available to everyone he met, making everyone feel important and valuable. He regarded the dignity of all persons — from the homeless to the elite and saw the good in all. Sometimes we can feel a separation from priests, hierarchy but Sheen poured out his priesthood on all he met and was never too busy for anyone.
One of my favorite stories is about a man in Manhattan who wasn’t Catholic. He would tune in each week to Sheen’s television broadcasts with his Catholic wife and child. One year, he decided to surprise his family and begin a study of the Catholic faith. He mustered up the courage and went to the local parish and knocked on the door. The parish priest answered the door and when the man told him his decision, the priest asked if he could come back later because he was busy eating dinner. The man could have been totally dejected but he decided to contact the only other priest he knew — the “famous” TV Bishop. He wrote Bishop Sheen a letter and subsequently, Sheen called him and invited him to meet weekly with other men learning the faith at his residence. At Easter, the man was baptized by Bishop Sheen at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Lopez: What can he teach us about the cross, even as we prepare for Christmas?
Walkenstein: Exchange and self-donation. There would be no Cross without first the Incarnation of Christ. He came to espouse himself to the earth as a self-offering in His infancy — to be born to die. Sheen says, “the Cross was the reason for His coming.” Bishop Sheen preaches about the Cross being an exchange for wills our will for a higher will.
Lopez: What do you make about the controversy about his earthly remains? What’s your prayer for that?
Walkenstein: I prayed inside the crypt in New York and had a powerful experience after which I was contacted by Peoria, Ill. — it was an explosion of grace that merged New York and the roots of Sheen where he was born and grew up. I pray that there can be a good resolve over his remains and soon so this pause in the cause for canonization can advance without further delay. I personally would never have had the experience I had if I didn’t have access inside the crypt. This was a grace that changed my life forever. I pray whatever happens, that there is access to Bishop Sheen.
Lopez: Could he be useful to people in the media in a particular way?
Lopez: Whom could this book be good as a gift (maybe for Christmas!) for?
Walkenstein: I want to say this book is really for everyone — for those who have faith and need an extra spiritual injection to those who have been away from the Church and are seeking meaning in their lives. Let the words of Bishop Sheen penetrate you and call you to where the Lord is leading you right now.
Lopez: What have you learned about Fulton Sheen?
Walkenstein: I’ve learned that he gets things done by way of prayer — sometimes in a New York Minute and sometimes things take longer but overall, it’s all the perfect timing of God!
Walkenstein: I’m particularly struck that with Sheen, the spiritual friendship is not for a season, but forever. Just when you think there is nothing left to do or receive, there is an overflow of new service, new results, new understanding by way of his teaching. I am also surprised at the timing of this little book as it emerged just before the wave of the so called second scandal in the Church. It’s as though heaven knew what we would need and when by way of teaching and renewal through his words and intercession. That to me is profound.