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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

Fulton J. Sheen in word and deed

Peace of Soul remains as profound a book now as it was 50 years ago


This month marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. Sadly, Sheen’s name increasingly escapes our nation’s collective memory, even among Catholics.

Bishop Sheen was extraordinarily popular. By April 1952, he was on the cover of TIME magazine. He won the 1952 Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality,” beating out legends such as Jimmy Durante, Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey. Stated differently, these Hollywood superstars, these icons of the screen, lost to a priest. A nationwide poll of radio and television editors named Bishop Sheen TV’s “Man of the Year.” In the 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon thanked him for his “outstanding contributions to a better understanding of the American way of life.” President Dwight Eisenhower invited him to the White House. This esteem escalated over the years, to the point where Bishop Sheen’s death on Dec. 9, 1979, and his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Dec. 14 were major stories.

A poll taken at the end of the 20th century by the Internet Catholic Daily, with 23,455 respondents, listed the top four Catholics of the century as Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Blessed Padre Pio and Bishop Sheen. The Catholic Almanac for the year 2000 rightly described him as “perhaps the most popular and socially influential American Catholic of the 20th century.”

Bishop Sheen was so renowned because he was so gifted. He was a superb communicator, through the spoken word, on radio first and then television, and the written word, delivered via a syndicated column and innumerable books and pamphlets. I’d like to recommend one of his best works, Peace of Soul, first published in 1949 by McGraw-Hill and recently republished by Liguori/Triumph Press.

Bishop Sheen wrote Peace of Soul at a time when psychoanalysis was a prevailing part of the culture. The book remains valuable not because of what it said about Freud and the superego but because of its insights on Christ and the cross. Further, Bishop Sheen’s dissection of issues like conflict, redemption, conscience, morbidity, guilt, remorse, frustration, confession, conversion, sex and love -- all addressed through the prism of Christianity -- are timeless, as is the book’s opening statement: “Unless souls are saved, nothing is saved; there can be no world peace unless there is soul peace.”

Wars, said Bishop Sheen, “are only projections of the conflicts waged inside the souls of modern men and women, for nothing happens in the external world that has not first happened within a soul.” Bishop Sheen’s interest was not so much peace of mind but peace of soul.

The best section in Peace of Soul is chapter three, “The Origin of Conflicts and Their Redemption,” which features some of the most profound and eloquent displays of writing to be found in any bookstore. I cannot do it justice here. In Chapter 3, Bishop Sheen attributed the origin of conflicts to human nature itself, and resolved that redemption through Christ is the only true solution to the human condition. The way in which Bishop Sheen made his case, and the sheer brilliance of his metaphors and his command of common sense and theology, are extraordinary. He presented the Christian Gospel in a manner nearly impossible to reject. Moreover, he did so by integrating Catholic theology, including the Immaculate Conception, in a likewise compelling way.

Bishop Sheen addressed the explosive mixture of human nature and God’s gift of free will. On the latter, he wrote: “God refuses to be a totalitarian dictator in order to abolish evil by destroying human freedom.” Bishop Sheen noted that Jesus Christ was the one figure among us who did precisely what God asked, and did so because he was not just human but divine. Only God himself, incarnate in the form of Christ, could provide the redemption needed by us fallible, sinful creatures. We ourselves are incapable. “The debt could be paid only by the Divine Master,” wrote Bishop Sheen, “coming out of his eternity into time.”

Peace of Soul aside, there are other ways to access Sheen today: The global Catholic television network, EWTN, reruns broadcasts of his television show, Life Is Worth Living, on Mondays at 2:00 p.m. and Fridays at 9:00 p.m. (EST). Watching these broadcasts evokes many feelings, including the sense that one has hopped into a time capsule. Additionally, a captivating, superb biography of Bishop Sheen was written in 2001 by Thomas C. Reeves, titled America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen.

Or, again, just order a copy of Peace of Soul and enjoy: You will be enriched by its beautifully delivered timeless truths, quite possibly to your eternal benefit -- just as Bishop Sheen would have wanted.

Paul Kengor is author of the bestselling books God and Ronald Reagan and God and George W. Bush. He is also a professor of political science at Grove City (Pa.) College and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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