Over the years, one of the authors I find myself going back to again and again is the now Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. For Catholics of my generation (born in the 1980s), Sheen isn’t as well-known as he ought to be. I say that because if you grew any time between the 1930s and the 1960s, Fulton Sheen was the most well-recognized Catholic in America. In fact, even Billy Graham called him one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century. He pioneered religious programming on television with his Life Is Worth Living show, drawing millions of viewers away from Milton Berle, and he even won an Emmy Award. During his acceptance speech, he famously thanked his writers…Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
He was also present at Vatican II and was for some 16 years the director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, where he raised tens of millions of dollars for the missions. In addition to these high profile roles, Sheen was also a prolific author, writing dozens of books, countless newspaper columns and magazine articles, and preaching to packed churches and auditoriums around the world.
Yet in spite of all of this, I tend to find that most Catholics my age really are not familiar with the late Archbishop. I want to suggest then that during the remaining part of Lent, and maybe even just for Holy Week, you take a chance on reading some Fulton Sheen. To that end, let me recommend a few titles that I return to each year.
Life of Christ
Considered perhaps Sheen’s finest work, is Life of Christ is a sustained and deeply biblical meditation on the life of Jesus Christ. Sheen wrote this book toward the end of his career and the inspiration for the work was actually a period of suffering that the author himself was experiencing. He wanted to re-encounter the sufferings of Jesus by re-reading and reflecting on the Biblical account of Christ’s life. The result is a book that is spell-binding and just exquisitely beautiful. His method of approaching the Sacred Scriptures gives you a richness that I find leads to real contemplation on the life of our Lord. But be warned! It’s a difficult book to put down. And at several hundred pages, each which begs you to read more and more slowly so as to really get the most out of it, it can take quite a while to get through.
The Seven Last Words
This book(let) is a stunning meditation on Christ’s last words from the Cross. Originally published in 1933, this reflection was probably adapted from a radio broadcast or public preaching on the theme. I remember when I had just discovered Sheen and had only read one or two of his books, I went to the Pauline Book store in New Orleans and bought every Sheen book they had (I spent over $100 at the time, which was a lot of money for a seminarian!) and one of my friends, now a priest, asked “Why did you get all those books?” I took out The Seven Last Words, which I hadn’t read yet, opened it to a random page, handed it to him and said “Just read two pages.” After about three minutes, he looked at me and said “I need to keep this until I finish it.” This is a book I re-read every Holy Week. As it’s seven chapters, you can read one short reflection each day leading up to Easter. If you only read one book by Sheen, this is the one I recommend the most.
The Cross and the Beatitudes
This is another shorter book, published first in 1937. In this text, the late Archbishop offers a meditation wherein he connects the sufferings of Christ on the Cross to the Beatitudes. He also draws a parallel between Christian living (that is, the Beatitudes), and the reality of suffering. His primary point is that if we live a life ordered by the Beatitudes, as Jesus Christ did, it will lead to our own suffering. This is the normal consequence of the spiritual life lived well in an age which doesn’t accept the Gospel. Timely now perhaps more than when he first wrote the text.
Characters of the Passion
In this book, Sheen looks at a list of characters in the Passion of Christ. Ever inspired by drama, Sheen meditates on the individual role that Peter, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Claudia and Herodias, Barrabas and the Thieves played in Christ’s Passion and Death. In this work, Sheen writes one of my favorite lines about St. Peter. Pondering why Jesus chose someone like Peter, rather than say the Beloved Disciple John to be the shepherd of his Church, the first Pope, Sheen writes:
No wonder our Divine Lord, Who knows all souls in their inner being, chose as the head of His Church not John who had never denied, and who alone of all the apostles was present on the hill of Calvary, but rather chose Peter who fell and then rose again, who sinned and who then was forgiven amidst lifelong penance, in order that His Church might understand something of human weakness and sin, and bear to the millions of its souls the gospel of hope, the assurance of divine mercy.
Isn’t that beautiful?!
So, if you’re looking either to have some solid reading material for the rest of Lent, or if you want to pick a great book for your prayer and reflection during Holy Week, I can’t recommend Sheen enough.
God Love You!