Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) found his Irish heritage provided a multitude of teachable moments — about humor, the vagaries of everyday life and our shared path toward Heaven illumined by the light of Christ.
Saint Patrick’s Day often found the famed priest, author, and television personality giving a speech about the Emerald Isle and her patron saint. He found any day was proper for a discourse about Ireland. Sheen loved Irish humor; he attributed the cheerful disposition of the Irish to how they view the world — and beyond.
“The Irishman enjoys life, I repeat, because he lives in a bigger universe than anyone else. He lives in the universe of eternity as well as of time,” Sheen told a St. Patrick’s Day crowd at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquet at New York’s Astor Hotel. “Ireland may be a small island, but every Irishman is bigger than Ireland. The earth may be a small earth, but every Irishman lives on a bigger earth than the earth. In a certain sense, it is therefore true to say that no Irishman is ever at home in Ireland, or that every Irishman is homeless at home.”
Sheen wore his Irish-American heritage like a proud son of Erin. Several of his grandparents emigrated from County Roscommon and Dublin. He saw in Ireland a special connection to America, the Catholic Church and to Christ himself. He noted Ireland’s long history of persecution and suffering, which brought it into unity with the sufferings of Our Blessed Lord. He likened the history of Éire to the Holy Mass, with the offertory being the appearance of St. Patrick, the sacrifice being Irish faith, and Communion the understanding and love of sacrifice of the Irish spread around the world.
“So multitudinous have been the sacrifices on this great altar stone of Ireland, that when on Judgment Day God sends forth His angels to sign with the sign, and seal with the seal of the Cross those destined to eternal salvation, He will find the Irish already marked,” Sheen told a Dublin audience, “for if God makes those whom He loves suffer, oh how he must love the Irish! Who will deny that all Ireland was like another Cross on which Christ was offered? Why, a finger might have dipped itself in the blood shed about that altar of sacrifice and written in its plains and valleys the whole history of Ireland.”
Grandson of Ireland
Three of Sheen’s grandparents came to America from Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine of the 1840s. Peter Sheen (1817-1890) traveled from south of Dublin on Ireland’s east coast. John Fulton (1829-1905) and wife Mary (1837-1919) came from Croghan, a tiny village in County Roscommon in western Ireland. The Sheen and Fulton families established farms near Peoria, Ill., prior to 1860.
Fulton’s parents, Newton and Delia (Fulton) Sheen, moved to El Paso, about 30 miles east of Peoria. Newt operated a hardware store at the time his first son was born on May 8, 1895. The future priest was given the name Peter John Sheen. When the young boy enrolled in parochial school, John Fulton told the teacher his grandson’s first name was Fulton. The boy spent the rest of his life as Fulton John Sheen.
Sheen was no stranger to his ancestral land. He made dozens of trips by sea and air to Ireland across the six decades of his priesthood. In 1952, he visited Croghan to consecrate the restored St. Michael Church. That day he was presented with a Blackthorn wood walking stick by a nine-year-old girl who lived in the house where Sheen’s grandmother was born. In 1973, he preached a four-day mission in Dublin on the spirituality of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. At the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, in June 1932, then-Father Sheen was one of two American priests selected to present papers to the massive gathering. One of his talks that week gave him an experience that he still used decades later to illustrate his deft oratorical skill and quick footwork.
“If there was ever a time in my life that I wanted to give a really fine oration, it was then,” Sheen recalled in the 1950s. “First of all, because it was a Eucharistic Congress, secondly because it was in Ireland, and thirdly, because my grandparents did not come from Bessarabia.” Sheen was reciting “I See His Blood on the Rose,” a work by Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett. By the time he reached the ninth line, All pathways by His feet are worn, Sheen forgot the final verses. After what seemed like a minutes-long pause, Sheen told his audience he could not remember the words. “I saw thousands of Irish jaws drop in disappointment,” he said. “When an Irish jaw drops, it collapses.”
Fully realizing the crisis he created, Sheen recalled the words of Patrick Henry, who advised a speaker in such difficulty to simply jump into the middle of a sentence and trust that God would get him to the finish line.
So I did. I said, ‘I’m glad I forgot.’ Of course I really wasn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to continue, so I started over again. I said, ‘If I had ever wished to have forgotten anything, if I had ever prayed to have forgotten anything, I should have prayed to have forgotten these lines of Joseph Mary Plunkett. I think there is beautiful symbolism in the forgetfulness, and that symbolism is that standing on the anvil of Ireland’s soil, one should be able to hammer and forge out the sparks of his own poetry and not be dependent even upon a magnanimous soul like Joseph Mary Plunkett.’
After the talk, the event chairman and several bishops gathered around Sheen. One remarked, “Father Sheen, that was a wonderful trick of oratory, wonderful pretending that you forgot.”
Blarney and Baloney
Sheen used an episode of his popular 1950s television series “Life is Worth Living” to explain the psychology of the Irish. He whittled the many traits of Hibernians to three shared hallmarks: fighting, humor, and blarney. He noted the Irish penchant for standing up for country and beliefs, but pointed out the Irish also fight among themselves. “Why is it that the Irish want to fight so much?” he asked. “Possibly it’s because that each and every one of them realizes that he is the descendant of a king. And since he wore once a crown, why shouldn’t he crown? If his ancestors had a scepter, why not carry a shillelagh?” (Pronounced shill-LAY-lee, a shillelagh is a hardwood stick with a common use similar to that of a blackjack or billy club.)
Sheen gave a discourse on blarney — and baloney. “There’s a world of difference between them,” he explained to his television audience.
Blarney is the varnished truth. Baloney is the unvarnished lie. Blarney is flattery laid on so thin you love it. Baloney is flattery laid on so thick, you hate it. You tell a woman of 40, ‘you look like 16,’ that’s baloney. The blarney way of saying it is, ‘Tell me how old you are. I should like to know at what age women are most beautiful.’
Sheen made frequent and effective use of another Irish trait: humor. He told anecdotes and Irish jokes that he enjoyed even more than his audiences. One of his favorites concerned an Irish family that moved from Dublin to Boston. “One of the sons went to Chicago. The father in Boston died. Son in Chicago sent a telegram to him, to his brother, and said, ‘What were father’s last words?’ The brother wired back: ‘Father had no last words. Mother was with him to the end.’”
Sometimes Sheen’s charming stories were based on real experiences. On a visit to Killarney, he hired a jitney driver to take him on a jaunt around the beautiful area lakes. “How much do I owe you?” Sheen asked the man. “Father, I have a wife and ten children. I leave it to you.” So the priest paid the man a “very generous fee” and a healthy tip. The man took the blanket off his horse and covered the animal’s head with it. “Father, I’d be ashamed to let the horse see you giving me this.”
Sheen explained that the Irish have a wider frame of reference that provides unlimited material for humor. “Suppose we could go out beyond time to the timeless, beyond space to the spaceless, out beyond ‘the margent of this world,’ out to the very hid battlements of the next,” Sheen told his Astor Hotel audience, “so as to include in our humor stories not only of time, but of eternity; not only of earth, but of Heaven; not only of men, but of angels; not only of Pan but of Peter, not only of skyscrapers, but of Heaven’s eternal mansions; not only of Broadway, but of streets of gold and jasper — why then we would have an infinite source of humor to draw upon, and, gentlemen, that is just precisely the universe the Irishman is always drawing upon, and that is why he has more humor than anyone else in the world.”
“He lives in a bigger world than Ireland, he climbs bigger hills than Killarney, he knows of deeper waters than Shannon and of harder rocks than Blarney. He is, in fact, always drawing upon a greater reservoir of humor than any other man on earth,” Sheen said. “He takes his jokes from a bigger book of eternity, and that is why he always talks about angels, witches, ghosts, leprechauns, shoemaker fairies, banshees and a thousand and one other spirits that do not belong to this world but the next.”
Irish and the Faith
Sheen often praised the key role Irish immigrants played in the development of the United States. Between 1820 and 1930, as many as 4.5 million Irish immigrants arrived in America. The Irish potato famine in the 1840s led to 1 million deaths in just five years and sparked an exodus from the island. During that period, the Irish made up half of all immigrants arriving on U.S. shores.
“Decade after decade, America received consecrated victims from Irish altars, living hosts schooled in the school of sacrifice; other Christs who had their Calvary and came to teach us the sweetness of its immolation,” Sheen said during a speech in Dublin. “As we Americans look back over the last 150 of our history, we realize how precious has been the communion of Ireland and America. Every Christian nation in Europe brought some contribution, but Ireland’s particular contribution was the emphasis on the fundamentals of our holy religion, namely, a love of sacrifice, and a beautiful and simple faith.”
“There is nothing worthwhile in the world that is accomplished without pain, and nothing so effectively preaches the lesson of Calvary as the fact that some have lived a life of Calvary,” Sheen said. “It is easy enough sometimes to die for one’s faith, but to live for it and to suffer for it is harder. The Irish, who came to our shores and who were begotten in labor, taught America by their steadfastness the love of renunciation.”
One example of Irish faith that impressed Sheen occurred outside the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney. Sheen remarked to the doorman, “Oh, it’s raining.” The doorman stuck his hand out into the sprinkles and replied, “You call that rain, Father. That’s holy water from Heaven and it’s blessing yourself you ought to be doing with it.” He then made the Sign of the Cross.
Sheen so firmly believed in the closeness of the Irish and Christ, he said they will experience a unique manifestation of Our Blessed Lord when He returns in glory. The German people, who love pomp, might see Christ return as a glorious king, Sheen said, while Spaniards, who love the beauty of religion, could see Jesus with a face radiant like the sun, with garments as white as snow.
“He will come to the people of India, who love mortification, showing scars on hands and feet and side,” Sheen told his television audience, “but to the Irish, he will show something he showed no other people. He will show them His gratitude for their humor — he will show them His smile.”
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