Bishop Fulton John Sheen served as bishop of the Rochester diocese from October of 1966 until October of 1969. He was known as a world renowned preacher and for his work in radio and television. So how did this major “celebrity” end up in a small diocese like Rochester?
This is an interesting story jam packed full of feuds and deals. Most of this story comes from the book “America’s Bishop — The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen” by Thomas C. Reeves.
Society for the Propagation of the Faith
Spellman named Sheen as Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. (Spellman himself was chairman of the Society’s Episcopal Committee.) Spellman was a huge fundraiser for both the Vatican and the Archdiocese of New York. He filled the coffers. To make room for Sheen at the Society, Spellman had its current director, Monsignor Thomas J. McDonnell, elevated as coadjutor of Wheeling, West Virginia.
Sheen was consecrated (the term now is ordained) a bishop on June 11, 1951 for the Archdiocese of New York City. He served as an auxiliary bishop under Francis Cardinal Spellman. The consecration took place in Rome at the Church of Sts.John and Paul, of which Spellman was titular head.
There was no evidence of serious tensions between Sheen and Spellman during the early 1950s. Spellman was personally responsible for Sheen’s new position. As director of the Society, Sheen was largely a public relations figure who traveled, preached, wrote, stayed in the news, and raised funds. Spellman knew that those qualifications fit Sheen exactly. Soon, donations began to soar, and Americans were contributing almost two-thirds of the collections made by the Society across the world.
The relationship between the cardinal and the bishop was proving productive, but Spellman was anxious that Sheen know from the beginning who was boss.
SHEEN’S TELEVISION DEBUT
“Life Is Worth Living” made its debut on February 12, 1952. From the first to the last program, Sheen appeared in full episcopal regalia. He was accustomed to dressing that way when giving public lectures. Bishop Sheen’s phenomenal success on TV was a sign that millions of Americans had gone beyond the crude caricatures so familiar in the nation’s history, and were willing to accept Catholics as Christians and friends. A bishop in full regalia who was charming, funny, learned and sensible could win allies, as well as converts, for the Church.
Worse trouble appeared in 1955, as Sheen and Spellman began an epic feud that was to cloud the rest of Fulton’s life. The immediate issue was money for the missions; but pride, on the part of both the bishop and the cardinal, also played a major role in the struggle. It was a story Fulton chose not to tell in his autobiography.
To be continued