Fulton Sheen and Elizabeth Ann Seton: The Church That Challenges

Venerable Fulton Sheen and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were both passionately committed to the truth that the Church is God’s channel of grace to humanity. A grace born of much suffering, but overcome by love.

Venerable Fulton Sheen and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton learned the hard way that it is not easy being faithful to the Catholic Church. But they also learned that fidelity pays off with incredible fruits of grace.

They are perhaps America’s two most famous Catholics. He is the renowned preacher-star of early television and radio, and she is the foundress who has been given credit for Catholic education in America. But both had significant struggles with the human, administrative, side of the Church they loved.

Fulton Sheen embraced — and was embraced by — the Church from a young age.

Born on May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Illinois, he was baptized Peter Sheen, but when his grandfather enrolled him in Catholic school, he reported his name as “Fulton” — a family name. It stuck.

Sheen says that one of the most significant incidents in his childhood was when he dropped a cruet in the cathedral while serving Mass for Bishop John Spalding at the cathedral in Peoria, Illinois. 

Instead of giving him a tongue-lashing, the bishop comforted Sheen after Mass and said, “Go home and tell your mother that I said when you get big you are to go to Louvain” (a Belgian Catholic university), “and someday you will be just as I am.”

Sheen’s vocation unfolded just as the bishop prophesied. He went from being an undergrad at the now-defunct Illinois St. Viator College who was too nervous to lead the rosary publicly to the Louvain graduate whose hugely popular TV program competed successfully against Milton Berle and who was made a New York Auxiliary Bishop in 1951.

Years later, a niece would describe how family and the Church were the pillars of Sheen’s life.

“He was not just the man in the red robe on TV. He was a very humble man, and very religious,” Joan Sheen Cunningham told Catholic News Agency last year. “His whole life was working for the Church. That was the most important thing about him.”

The Church requited his love — but the institutional Church was also a source of hurt and pain.

In the introduction he wrote for Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay, EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo recounts the following story.

In 1957 Bishop Fulton Sheen was an Auxiliary Bishop of New York under Cardinal Francis Spellman when the federal government donated millions of dollars’ worth of powdered milk to the Archdiocese. The Sheen-led Society for the Propagation of the Faith got the milk to distribute to the world’s poor — but Spellman wanted the Society to pay the Archdiocese for it.

Spellman appealed to Pius XII, “in Sheen’s presence,” writes Arroyo. When the Pope sided with Sheen, an angry Spellman is reported to have vowed to Sheen, “It may take six months or 10 years, but everyone will know what you are like.”

This incident is cited as the reason Sheen’s television and radio career ended in 1957 despite having a 30-million strong audience. After that, the official Church ostracized Sheen in small ways and large during the 1960s until he lost the Society for the Propagation of the Faith assignment and was transferred to Rochester, N.Y., in 1966.

If Arroyo is right, this incident changed his life — but Sheen refused to add it to his autobiography, writing, “the curious would like me to open healed wounds,” and “the media in particular would relish a chapter which would pass judgment on others.” 

Instead, Sheen said only that he suffered “trials inside and outside the Church,” and “I am certain that it is God who made certain people throw stones at me.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had the same loving and challenging relationship with the Catholic Church.

In 1804, Elizabeth immortalized her own feelings about the Church in a letter to Italian friend Amabilia Filicchi:

“I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God himself.”  

Her love for the Church grew during her lifetime, such that her last words to her community were: “Be children of the Church! Be children of the Church!” 

As Sister Josephine Burn’s research details, throughout her life, Seton’s relationship with the Church had its own highs and lows. 

In a letter to Archbishop John Carroll, Elizabeth shared her struggles with being obedient to imperfect leaders: 

“I have endeavored to do everything in my power to bend myself to meet the last appointed Superior in every way — but after continual reflection on the necessity of absolute conformity with him and constant prayer to our Lord to help me, yet the heart is closed.” 

At another time, Elizabeth described her suffering in strong terms to Archbishop Carroll, who she considered a spiritual father to her.

“I have had a great many very hard trials, my Father, since you were here,” she wrote. “This fire of tribulation is no doubt meant to consume the many imperfections and bad dispositions our Lord finds in me — indeed it has at times burnt so deep that the anguish could not be concealed.”

Fulton Sheen says that everybody should expect this kind of harsh grace in their life with the Church.

In his book Lift Up Your Hearts: A Guide to Spiritual Peace, Sheen describes how two kinds of grace interact with a Christian’s life.

“The first experience involves a discontent, a disgust, a fed-upness with life; the second awakening is the consciousness that God is making an impact on the soul,” he said.

For children of the Church, he said, “We see ourselves moving through the world not so much as peasants, who never had anything, but as royalty in exile, ever conscious of our original dignity. We are searching and looking — not so much because we hope to hit on a new treasure, but to recover one we have already had and lost.”

In his own life, he said, he discovered his place in the Church not despite the crosses but through them.

“I could not understand the meaning of my life” without these trials, he said. “It was not enough to be a priest; one also had to be a victim.”

This is what St. Elizabeth Ann Seton discovered: humiliation comes not only from the world but from members of the Church itself; the trick is to learn humility from it.

“Oh, if it all goes well for me what will I not do for you!” she wrote to her spiritual director near the end of her life. “You will see. But, alas, yet if I am not one of his elect, it is only I to be blamed and when going down I must still lift the hands to the very last look in praise and gratitude for what he has done to save me. What more could he have done? That thought stops all.” 

When Mother Seton died, it was after a life of hard work and much suffering. So also with Fulton Sheen, who dictated his autobiography in part “from his sickbed as he clutched a crucifix,” reports Arroyo.

In his autobiography, Sheen echoed Mother Seton’s sentiment, “Have I really served the Church as well as I should?” he asked. “Have I used the many talents the Lord has given me? Have I cast fire upon the earth as the Lord asked me to do?”

It is no accident that the Gospel chosen for the new Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, is the crucifixion. The Church is God’s channel of grace to humanity; this is a grace born of much suffering but overcome by love.

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Image: Creative Commons

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