Obedience & Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Obedience in Life, Obedience in Death: The Great Example of Archbishop Sheen
by Msgr. Richard Soseman

Obedience. Obedience can be a challenge.

Every child knows this. My abundant great nieces and nephews are truly great kids, well behaved young
men and women. They are tremendously good, and I have see them, often, engage in selfless acts of
kindheartedness and charity. Even they, good as they are, are tempted sometimes to disobey, and they
actually do disobey sometimes. I have seen the struggle on their cute young faces. Told to do something
or not to do something by their parents, they are attracted by what they want to do. The internal wheels
turn, their bodies contort, their face sets, the eyes close or look around as they struggle to be obedient.
Finally, and usually, they do obey, but it comes at a cost.

Every adult knows that it is also difficult to obey, sometimes. Almost all of us work for some boss, who
must be obeyed at times, or learn to work with bossy coworkers. Husbands and wives learn to obey
each other in the first years of marriage, as their love moves to deeper levels. We all have the
experience, also, of being adults bowing to the desires of our parents, who continue to moderate the
well being of the extended family, even as we ourselves become older. Obedience, it can be difficult.

There is also great joy in obedience. Religious men and women, nuns and priests and brothers, vow and
live obedience as one of their three vows, the “Evangelical Counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In such a way, they wish to configure their lives completely to Christ, and live in close imitation of Him.
Ironically, these “Counsels” can be very freeing, removing doubts and anxieties from those who live in
close, supportive communities, moderated by their superiors. Diocesan priests also promise obedience
to their Bishop, obedience to the Church, to go and do what they are assigned, to teach in accord with
Church teaching, to act as Christ would have them act. As the assignment comes from the Bishop, or in
some cases the Pope, who acts in the name of God and the Church, the priest or Bishop accepts that
assignment, and recognizes that, for better or for worse, whether he flourishes or falters, good will be
done through penance and joy. Obedience in this case leads to willing acceptance of God’s will.

Recent discussion of the halt to the Cause of Beatification of the Servant of God, Venerable Archbishop
Fulton J. Sheen, whatever may come, has neglected discussion of his great virtues, and I think of his
attitude of obedience,. Fulton Sheen learned very early to be obedient. His ability to bend his will to the
will of his superiors, and ultimately the will of God, was well established by the time of his priestly
ordination. This was further fortified by his daily Holy Hour of prayer, speaking to our Lord one on one in
a kind of sacred colloquy. He spoke to Our Lord of his sorrows and joys, and received graces from our
Lord to flourish in his ministry. I have learned much from the obedience of Archbishop Sheen.

As a small boy, probably around 1900, he shoplifted a small tin can with a geranium in it for his mother.
When she asked if he had bought it, he said “no.” When she asked how much it cost, he replied “ten
cents.” As punishment he had to take 25 cents, he said, from his bank and go, apologize to the grocer
and pay him the quarter. Obedience.

When finishing college, he won a national graduate scholarship, which would have paid for his doctorate
at any university in the United States. His spiritual director, knowing of a possible vocation, instead
instructed him to give up the scholarship, and begin seminary studies. Obediently, he did, confirmed the
call of God to the priesthood, and the world is a better place because of it.

It is well known that as a young priest, Archbishop Sheen’s obedience was also tested. Finishing his
exalted degree in Europe, he was assigned by Bishop Dunne of Peoria, to return to Peoria, to work as an
assistant priest at St. Patrick’s parish, a poor, but beautiful, Church on the South Side of the city. After
about a year, he was called into the Bishop’s office, and was told he would be moving to Washington
D.C., to accept a teaching position at the Catholic University of America. Already over thirty years of age
at the time, and certainly well able to determine the course of his own life, he accepted in obedience,
living and teaching in the District of Columbia and Catholic University for 23 years. While living in
Washington, he bought a house at the end of a dead end street, which they say was surrounded by trees
and much vegetation, which reminded him of Peoria and home. He installed a chapel, to make of the
house a house of prayer, and invited three other priest professors to live with him there.

It was during that time that he became a frequent visitor to a city he would later call home, Manhattan,
New York. Around 1930 he was asked to broadcast, weekly, on the Catholic Hour, which was broadcast
from New York, and so he began to take the train up every Sunday, to broadcast that afternoon, and
then to return to Washington to teach on Monday. He did this, off and on, for twenty years, in addition
to all of his other preaching and teaching engagements throughout the country, and indeed, throughout
the world.

It was not until he was 54 years old, though, that again, because of obedience, he accepted a position in
Manhattan, at the appointment of the Pope, and moved to New York. His task was to raise awareness
of, and to raise funds for, the missionary activities of the Church in the mission fields of Africa, the
Orient, Europe under Communism, and even parts of South America. So, in 1950, he obediently moved
to New York to take up his work there. There were times, there, when his obedience was sorely tested,
when he suffered great internal struggles, when he rightly withstood commands which were improperly
given. He was accused of disobedience by local Church authorities, but he remained obedient to a
higher superior, following the express indications of the Pope. For years he was made to suffer greatly,
but never in the public eye, at the hands of certain New York clergy, but he never turned from
obedience, according to those who were close to the situation, quietly accepting what was dished out to
him in cold vendetta.

When Archbishop Sheen was already over 70, Pope Paul VI asked him if he would come to Rome to head
a Roman Congregation. This certainly would have meant even more honors bestowed upon him, along
with the red hat of a Cardinal. Venerable Fulton indicated to the Pope that he would be obedient, if the
Pope so ordered, but that he believed God had given him a special gift to teach his own people,
Americans, in his own language, English. Pope Paul VI agreed, and indicated to the Roman Curia that the
next good Diocese which opened up should be given to Archbishop Sheen as Diocesan Bishop. So,
already a senior citizen, Venerable Fulton went to Rochester, which at the time was considered an
extremely good, faithful, well off Diocese. Rochester had a seminary which was considered most solid,
with many vocations, St. Bernard’s, referred to with affection as “the Rock of the Genesee,” as it stood
on a bluff overlooking the Genesee River.

I believe Bishop Sheen was somewhat misunderstood in Rochester. His predecessor had been very much
an autocrat, but in a positive way, building the Diocese as Bishop for thirty years, but micromanaging
everything throughout the Diocese. Bishop Sheen, schooled through his life in the manner of the Bishop
of Peoria, asked priests, and his auxiliary Bishops, to take on needed roles, but left them to employ their
own God given gifts and talents to achieve their goals. So, the obedience he asked was, I think, the
obedience of filial love, of creativity, truly of the charity of Christians, docile to the promptings of the
Holy Spirit.

When, three years after he arrived, his health and other factors indicated that he should retire, he
silently submitted his request to His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, obedient to Canon Law, but obediently
remained Bishop until Pope Paul VI accepted his retirement. Archbishop Sheen would not have wanted
to seem to interfere with the new Bishop of Rochester, who was in some ways his protégé, and so when
he retired he returned to Manhattan. He had served there as an auxiliary bishop for 15 years, all of
these of fruitful ministry, of joy of meeting local, ordinary people. Many of those years were also fraught
with internal anguish, suffering, and pain. Still obedient to his priestly vocation, despite some terrible
health problems, he was known to continue traveling the country, and the world, preaching Christ. New
York was certainly a good home base for him at that time, with a few family members and many
devoted former employees to assist him, and from there he could easily fly across the country.

The narrative which has often presented itself, since I started working on the Sheen Cause, is that
Bishop Sheen “escaped” the Diocese of Peoria as a young priest, and moved to a city he loved,
Manhattan. It is then said, mostly by easterners, rightly proud of the city they consider the “capital of
the world,” that Bishop Sheen, having upset Cardinal Spellman in some way, was “exiled” from
Manhattan to Rochester. He was made Bishop of Rochester, sent out to the middle of nowhere,
according to them, returning to his beloved city as soon as he could, to live out his life in a place he

I must confess that I never thought twice about that version of events, until a straightforward
Midwestern woman, in Rome for her son’s ordination, asked me today, “well, just how long did Bishop
Sheen live in New York?” I thought about it, and replied, “well really, not very long.” He lived in the
Peoria Diocese, or at least considered that his home base, until he was in his thirties, and remained an
incardinated priest of the Diocese of Peoria until he was consecrated a Bishop in 1951, when he was 55.
It was said that whenever any priest of Peoria stopped to see him, he cleared the calendar for some
time of “catching up” with his brother priests. He lived in Washington, D.C., for twenty three years, and
then moved to Manhattan in 1950, dying there in 1979. He was, of course, constantly absent from
Manhattan for his abundant travels to preach and teach the Word of God. He was known to return to
visit his home and family in the Peoria Diocese whenever he passed through the Midwest. He was also
absent for much of the time of the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 and concluded at the
end of 1965. From 1966 until 1969, he served as Bishop of Rochester, and then returned to live out his
life in New York.

So Bishop Sheen, who performed most of his ministry as an incardinated priest of the Diocese of Peoria,
32 years, lived about 23 years of his active life in Washington D.C., and 15 years in Manhattan, three
years in Rochester, and then about 10 years back in New York in retirement.

New Yorkers are rightfully very proud of their relationship with Archbishop Sheen, but his personality
was such, his personal holiness so great, that everyone he preached to, throughout the world, felt this
instant attachment to him. He was rightly considered one in solidarity with whoever heard him, from a
crown princess serving the sick at Lourdes, to the poorest of the poor in Africa, from his many beloved
Midwestern family members in the diocese of Peoria, to his students at the Catholic University. God’s
chosen ones, after all, belong to all of us, don’t they?

Even after death, one might say, Bishop Sheen was obedient, his body was buried in the crypt at St.
Patrick’s Cathedral at the express indication of Cardinal Cooke. Even though Venerable Fulton had
bought a cemetery plot elsewhere, the Sheen family was honored at this magnanimous gesture. His
family chose to disobey his express wishes, and allowed him to be buried under the High Altar at St.
Patrick’s. Perhaps, someday, that great Cathedral will take on a new name, “St. Fulton’s Cathedral,” as
would often happen in the middle ages, when the relics of a saint were contained in a Church.

I am sure this current discomfort over his mortal remains would not have “gotten his Irish up,” as he
would have obediently been buried in Peoria, Rochester, Washington D.C., Queens, Rome, or
Manhattan, had any of those places been indicated to him by a superior during his life. Certainly 35
years after his death, he would continue his lifelong obedience, and be happy to be reburied in Peoria in
the Cathedral where he was ordained, since that is where the Holy See has indicated. Obedience in
childhood, obedience in priesthood, obedience in death. Would that we could all follow his example
very closely.

Obedience, a challenge. From childhood we find it so, but understand that obedience can be a penance,
a suffering, but also that it leads to great good, a liberating joy. From the child who is punished to
prevent him from doing something dangerous, to a loving couple who cooperate to work things out, we
can certainly understand this. Nowhere, perhaps, is priestly obedience best expressed in a way we can
all understand, then in the life of the Venerable Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

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