Local monsignor fondly recalls Archbishop Sheen

BRAINTREE -- When Msgr. Andrew Connell recalls the life of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, he is remembering more than the bishop’s television charisma, stage presence, or love of spreading the Gospel to people near and far. As Msgr. Connell speaks of Archbishop Sheen, he is speaking of a friendship with a man who may soon become a saint.

The now-retired priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, who met Archbishop Sheen through missionary work, Msgr. Connell is supportive of the Church’s advancement of Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization.

“I truly believe that of all the human beings I have come in contact with, he’s certainly worth investigating his life and promoting his cause,” Msgr. Connell said.

Archbishop Sheen’s cause was formally opened by the Vatican in 2003.

Msgr. Connell first met the late archbishop through their work in the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. Msgr. Connell was a longtime director of the Boston office and Archbishop Sheen was the national director, headquartered in New York City. The two served together on the board of the Pontifical Mission Society.

It was the pair’s common interests of aiding the poor and bringing the Gospel around the world that forged a friendship, according to Msgr. Connell.

“Sometimes, we’d be sitting beside each other in the board of directors meetings,” Msgr. Connell recalled. “We’d go to lunch on breaks.”

Msgr. Connell recalled dining at his friend’s Manhattan home, and the many after-dinner conversations they had. He also recalled Archbishop Sheen’s popularity, noting that sometimes those conversations were interrupted by phone calls from all over the world.

“He was just so world-famous,” Msgr. Connell said. “Everybody knew him.”

Many Americans knew of Archbishop Sheen through his well-known television show, “Life Is Worth Living.”

According to www.archbishopsheencause.org, Archbishop Sheen hosted his radio show, “The Catholic Hour” for 22 years, beginning in 1930. Then, in 1950, he became the national director for the Propagation of the Faith. After he answered the Holy Father’s call, television networks courted him.

The networks, according to Msgr. Connell, wanted someone to compete with the rising popularity of comedian Milton Berle.

At first, Archbishop Sheen was hesitant, Msgr. Connell said.

“As a priest, he just thought it might be too showy, too dramatic,” Msgr. Connell said. “As he thought about it more, it was a tremendous medium. He could reach out to more people than he could going to churches.”

The lucrative contract he received was too good to refuse.

“Archbishop Sheen wasn’t anxious to go on television, but they kept offering him more,” Msgr. Connell said.

He received a contract worth millions of dollars and donated it all to the missions, Msgr. Connell said.

His popularity soared, eventually winning an Emmy Award over Berle in only the show’s second year.

“Catholic, Protestant, and Jew alike would say on Tuesday nights, ‘We got to get home and watch Fulton Sheen,’” Msgr. Connell said. “He was dearly loved by all peoples of all faiths.”

For Msgr. Connell, Archbishop Sheen’s delivery style made him a hit.

“He had an ability to elucidate the most complex theological thoughts into language everyone would understand,” he said. “Not only did they get deep thought and reasoning, but they got a little humor, too.”

Msgr. Connell also recalled his “dramatic” and “riveting” presentation style.

Because of the archbishop’s popularity, Msgr. Connell said, it could take him over a half hour to walk just one block in New York.

“Countless people would come over and talk to him,” he said. “He would talk to each one.”

When Archbishop Sheen came to Boston to deliver a Good Friday sermon in 1973, he drew 40,000 people for an afternoon event, according to Msgr. Connell. The crowd included people of many faiths, including the heads of many faith communities in Boston.

“He wanted it billed as an ecumenical service,” Msgr. Connell said.

On the stage, Archbishop Sheen only wanted two things -- a large crucifix hanging from the ceiling and a place to kneel down, said Msgr. Connell. There was not even a chair on the stage.

Msgr. Connell said that Archbishop Sheen explained his choice saying, “When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t sit down. Neither will I. I will either stand up to preach or kneel down to pray.”

Archbishop Sheen had a tremendous love for the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, according to Msgr. Connell. Every day, he said, the late archbishop prayed a Holy Hour before the tabernacle.

In fact, according to Msgr. Connell, Archbishop Sheen had wished to die in the chapel at his home before the Blessed Sacrament and on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. As it turned out, the late archbishop died on Dec. 9 at 1 a.m. while trying to get into the chapel.

He was buried in a crypt below the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At a Mass offered by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York and concelebrated by scores of bishops, cardinals, and priests on Dec. 9 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to mark the 30th anniversary of his death, hundreds of people waited in line to visit the crypt.

Despite a back condition, Msgr. Connell said he felt compelled to attend the Mass.

“Every step I take is in agony, but I wouldn’t miss a Mass for Bishop Sheen,” Msgr. Connell said.

Today, Archbishop Sheen is a Servant of God, one of four steps towards canonization, according to Msgr. Connell.

Msgr. Connell said that two miracles have been attributed to the late archbishop. In one instance, a boy stricken with “life-threatening ailments” was cured after his family prayed to Archbishop Sheen, and in another case, the severe bleeding of a woman in surgery stopped after her husband’s prayers to the late archbishop.

If Archbishop Sheen is canonized, he would be the first media star in the United States to become a saint, Msgr. Connell said.

To this day, Msgr. Connell cherishes the friendship the two shared.

“I feel very privileged to have known him as a friend and counted him as a mentor,” Msgr. Connell said.

Msgr. Connell said his two mentors in his priesthood were Cardinal Richard Cushing, who preceded him as director of the Boston office of the Propagation of the Faith, and Archbishop Sheen.