By Joseph M. Hanneman
Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen could not recall a time in his life when he did not want to be a priest. At his First Communion, he prayed that one day he would be ordained to the priesthood. That day came in September 1919, when the 24-year-old son of Newton and Delia Sheen was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, USA.
Sheen would become a towering figure in the Catholic Church in the 20th century, known to millions as a brilliant orator, a master teacher of the faith on television and radio, in many dozens of books, and from the pulpit. But for more than 60 years, Sheen was first, foremost and always a priest. His priesthood was more than a vocation, more than life’s work, and even beyond his identity. It was his essence, lifeblood; indeed his very nature. Or, as he often described it, Christ’s nature dwelling in him.
Sheen wrote and spoke often about the priesthood. He gave many retreats later in life to remind his brother priests who and what they truly are. Even more than 40 years after his death, Sheen’s teachings stand as a faithful sentinel against modernist wishes to “reform” the priesthood by dispatching with celibacy and even changing the all-male nature of the priesthood. It is easy to imagine him today before a podium and microphone, explaining in stirring tones and rich voice why Our Blessed Lord made the holy priesthood as He did. It’s easy because he gave those talks and wrote passionate words about his vocation and his life in persona Christi.
Celibacy and masculinity are the very defining characteristics of the Catholic priesthood, Sheen said.
Alter Christus; Ambassadors of Christ
Sheen emphasized that priests were ambassadors of Jesus Christ and alter Christus, “other Christs,” who are “dispensers of the mysteries of God.” The role and essential characteristics of the priesthood come from Christ Himself, Sheen said; meaning to attempt to change or modify them would be to oppose God’s divine plan. Christ calls the priest, makes the priest and provides the grace for him to completely offer himself as priest and victim.
“This is the way he continues the priesthood of Our Blessed Lord,” Sheen said in his talk, “Holy Orders.”1 “Our Lord was not a priest because He was eternally begotten by the Father. Our Lord was a priest because He had a human nature, which He could offer up for our salvation. And so we too, continuing that priesthood, are something like Jacob’s Ladder — it reaches up to the heavens and yet at the same time it is placed on the earth. Therefore every priest is a kind of another Christ, having vertical relations to Christ and Heaven and horizontal relations to men on earth.”
What Sheen described across the many decades of his ministry is a beautiful, divinely appointed plan under which ordained men continue Christ’s saving work as his priests, and a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, represents the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. “Mary at the foot of the Cross was the symbol of the Church,” he said. “Our Lord on the Cross was the New Adam. She was the New Eve.”2 Writing in his book The Priest Is Not His Own, Sheen continued: “The priest first gives up the earthly love of a woman, as Mary gave up the earthly love of a man. His ‘I have no knowledge of woman’ balances her ‘I have no knowledge of man’ ” (Luke 1:34).3
Total Gift of Self
In his many retreats for priests and bishops, Sheen often said that priestly celibacy is misunderstood as an undue burden; a cruel cross that is unfairly forced upon priests. Rather, celibacy is a gift from Christ to His priests. That gift comes with the supernatural grace to maintain and protect it. “For anyone to say that Christ was forced on us is just as false as to say that any gift such as celibacy is forced on us,” Sheen said. “It is not man’s gift to God, it is God’s gift to man.”4
Celibacy, Sheen said during one retreat, is a treasure the the Blessed Lord keeps in “pots of earthenware.” The earthenware pots “have received a gift. A gift: celibacy. That is the way Our Lord describes it, as a gift. That is the way the Vatican council describes it. Celibacy is a gift that is given to some men. He gave it to us. We did not offer celibacy, we received it. And as long as we remain close to Him, we will have it and keep it.”5
Because it comes from God, celibacy is not an impossibility for priests, Sheen said. It is one of three so-called “impossibles” mentioned in the Gospels. One is the Virgin Birth. The second is poverty, shown by the rich man who went away sad because Christ called him to donate all of his possessions and follow Him. The third was celibacy, which Christ described when discussing the types of eunuchs.
In Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay, he quotes Christ: “ ‘There are eunuchs born that way from their mother’s womb. There are eunuchs made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way.’ Then He spoke of celibates who do not marry ‘for the sake of the Kingdom of God,’ finally giving away the secret of how men could be celibate. He called it a gift. He said that celibacy is not for everyone. It is only for those who receive from Him this gift. It is ‘only for those to whom it is granted. Let anyone accept this who can.’ ”6
In his magnum opus Life of Christ, Sheen wrote that when Jesus recommended celibacy, the disciples objected to the severity of the teaching because they feared it would dissuade men from entering marriage. “His answer shows that they understood His meaning. Their error was in failing to realize to what sacrificial heights He would summon men for the sake of His Kingdom.”7
In his priest retreat, “Restoring the Vineyard,” Sheen asked, “Why was the Lord, why was He a celibate? And why does he ask us? He asks in order that we might be able to make a totally committed love without division and without compromise. Just to be totally His.”8
The gift of self by priests is manifested in part through being in service at all times, day and night. “There is no such thing as saying at the end of a day, ‘Well I’ve done my duty for the day.’ Rather, Our Lord said we have to call ourselves unprofitable servants. …Labor union rules are not sufficient for us. We belong to a different union, where love, not hours, is the standard. When we think of all Our Lord has done for us, we really can never do enough. The word ‘enough’ does not exist in love’s vocabulary.”9
The limits demanded by celibacy are among the distinguishing characteristics by which the priesthood can be identified, Sheen said. “How do you know the identity of Honolulu? How do you know the identity of the Philippines? How do we know the identity of the state of New York? How do we know the identity of a football field? By its boundaries. By its limits.”10
Fire or Diamonds?
Sheen said the key is for priests to be so closely conformed to Christ as to take on His nature and imitate Him. “Celibacy is hardest when we fall out of love with Christ,” Sheen wrote. “Then it becomes a great burden. Once we priests put celibacy in the context of the Church and discuss its history, its sociology and the like, there is a groaning under the burden. Once we see it in relation to Christ, then it is less a problem and more a matter of love. Celibacy as an ecclesiastical law is hard. Celibacy as a question of discipleship is hard too, but bearable and joyful.”11
Sheen always implored priests to make a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, a practice he carried out every day of his priesthood (nearly 22,000 Holy Hours). Any priest who does this, he said, would not be lost. “I could draw a curve of my own life … my attitude toward celibacy would be seen always in direct relationship to my personal love of Christ. Once our passions cease to burn for Him, they begin to burn toward creatures. Celibacy is not the absence of passion; it is rather the intensity of a passion.”12
Sheen cited two men who gave up love of a woman for community ideals: Gandhi, who did so for the “untouchables” in India’s caste social system, and former United Nations Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, who practiced celibacy for world peace. Unknowingly, Sheen wrote, these men were saying the same thing as St. Paul: “An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs. All he need worry about is pleasing the Lord. But a married man has to bother about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife. He’s torn in two ways” (1 Cor 7:32-34).13
“If a man gives up freedom for a woman he loves, then it is also possible for a man to give up a woman for Christ,” Sheen wrote. “Love in the service of celibacy rises and falls with the love of Him. Once Christ becomes less regnant in human hearts, something has to take over to fill the vacuum.”14
Christ on the Cross and in the Eucharist are the touchstones on the question of celibacy, he said, underscoring the need for the daily Holy Hour. “The more we fall away from response to that gift, the less we want to look at a crucifix, the less we want to visit the Lord in His Sacrament. We become like the man who crosses the street when he sees a bill collector on the other side. The Cross, therefore, is where Heaven and hell meet. It is a hell when we see the part we have played in His Crucifixion by our infidelity. It is Heaven when we remain faithful, or when we fly again to His feet for pardon.”15
The sex drive can be transformed, Sheen said, with a focus on Christ’s presence dwelling in His priests. “Carbon may either become fire or it may become a diamond. The libido may be spent or it may be harbored. It may seek unity with another person without, but it may also seek unity with another person within, namely God. …So celibacy is not just the renouncing of the person outside but a concentration on the person inside. God is not out there. He is in us: ‘I will abide in you and you will abide in Me.’ Celibacy is a transformer which multiplies an energy within to concentrate entirely on Christ Who lives in the soul.”16
Priests are imitating Christ, carrying a cross to prolong His redemption, Sheen said. The more closely they follow Christ, all the easier to be His. “If I belong to the new humanity which was born originally of a Virgin, why should I not live in exclusivity for the Master? I never felt? I gave up love in taking the vow of celibacy; I just chose a higher love.”17
Priestly celibacy and marriage are both honorable vocations, but should not be compared like some competing ideals, Sheen said. “…It is like arguing about the relative perfection of the right leg over the left. Both want God, and the degree of possession does not depend upon the state of life, but on the degree of response to the grace that God gives. The celibate is working for the Kingdom of God by ‘begetting children in Christ’ in baptism; the married by having children through the profound unity of two in one flesh. God has two kinds of lovers — those who go directly to the ultimate, such as the celibate, and those who go mediately through marriage.”18
The begetting of children in Christ, Sheen wrote, is a higher form of generation that uses the energy that would otherwise serve the flesh and transforms it into chaste generation of the Spirit. “What a blessed life is ours. What a beautiful role celibacy plays when it facilitates a higher kind of generation, when it inspires the priest to imitate the Father in begetting The Word, to imitate the Christ who begot us in the Spirit as alter Christus.”19
Priests must so closely conform themselves to Christ, Sheen said, that they are not mere followers or servants, but douloi — slaves. The Greek word doulos (δοῦλος) is used nearly 50 times in the New Testament to refer to Christ. “How then do we really become true liberators?” Sheen asked in one retreat for priests. “When do we begin to be effective at liberating souls from evil, having power over nature? Now here comes the paradox of Christianity. By being slaves. Slaves of Christ. That’s what we are. The douloi of the Good Lord.”20
That work, Sheen said, is to liberate people from evil, not to liberate them from morality, family life, the Church or the Commandments. “ ‘Thanks be to God, who continually leads us about, captives in his triumphal procession.’ That’s what we are. Captives in Christ’s triumphant procession. ‘And everywhere uses us to reveal and spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge of Himself’ ” (2 Cor 2:14-15).
“So that is what we are. The secret is out,” Sheen said. “Christ has won the battle; only the news has not yet leaked out. And we, we are slaves in Christ’s triumphal procession.”21
Priesthood and Nuptials
Sheen said the idea of women as priests comes from a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the priesthood, but God’s divine plan.
“Mary was not a priest. If her Divine Son wanted women to be priests, He would have made His own mother a priest. The woman is a symbol of the Church.”22
The key to the all-male priesthood is found in Scripture’s many references to marriage nuptials, Sheen said. “Why in the divine, biblical order can they (women) not be priests? Is it because we want a monopoly on it? Certainly not. It is because the whole divine order is based on nuptials. Creation began with nuptials —the nuptials of man and woman in the Garden of Eden. Then there came the nuptials of Israel and God. In the prophet Hosea we read, ‘I, your Creator am your husband.’ See how the natural and the divine order are linked together?”23
In the Old Testament, God tells Hosea to marry a harlot. Despite her unfaithfulness to Hosea, God tells the husband to take her back. “She is the symbol of Israel,” Sheen said. “ ‘Israel is my bride.’ Unfaithful. Disloyal. Disobedient. But I will always love Israel.”
In the new order, Sheen said, we have not just the nuptials of man and woman, “but the nuptials of divinity and humanity in the Incarnation of Our Blessed Lord. Then on the Cross we have the nuptials of God-man and the New Israel, which is the Church. And out of this marriage, a bridegroom and bride on the Cross, the New Adam and the New Eve, there begins the new progeny. John the firstborn. Then it multiplies at Pentecost and it has been multiplying ever since. So nuptials becomes the foundation of the covenant order. God continues it.”24
Christ referred to the woman who touched the hem of his cloak and was healed “my daughter” (Matt 9:20). He called the apostles “my children.”
“There are other ways of begetting,” Sheen said in his talk, “Pots of Earthenware.” “The Word is the seed. The seed is The Word. And The Word gives the seed to the earth, The Word gives the seed to the Church. Every time we mount the pulpit, The Word is the seed. Man gives the seed. The woman receives the seed. She fecundates it, nourishes it, brings it to life, educates it, caresses it, loves it, so that in the new order we have Christ and His Bride, the Church.
“Now those who want women to become priests no longer want the bridegroom Christ to have a bride. Should not they be proud of the fact that they symbolize the bride, which is the Church? As we have to be proud of symbolizing Christ Himself, and the Church is the ecclesial Body of Christ.”25
After 60 years and nearly three months of priesthood, Sheen died while making his Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, just one day after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in December 1979.
“We cannot live without love,” Sheen once said, “and if we’re in love with Him, oh he provides the means. We have all the joys of another kind of love, that love that leaves all other love a pain; the unpossessed that makes possession vain.”26
1 Sheen, Fulton J., 12:24 mark, “Lesson 35: Holy Orders,” The Sheen Catechism: Fulton Sheen Audio Library, FultonSheen.com and CatholicVault.com. Sheen’s audio talks are available in various other places on the internet.
2 Sheen, Fulton J., “Mary and the Mass,” Various Topics: Fulton Sheen Audio Library, FultonSheen.com and CatholicVault.com. Sheen’s audio talks are available in various other places on the internet.
3 Sheen, Fulton J., The Priest is Not His Own, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), location 3885 of 3996, Kindle version, Amazon.com.
4 Sheen, Fulton J., Treasure in Clay: the Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1980); Page 211, Kindle version at Amazon.com.
5 Sheen, Fulton J., “Pots of Earthenware,” Prayer, Suffering and the Spiritual Life: Fulton Sheen Audio Library, FultonSheen.com and CatholicVault.com. Sheen’s audio talks are available in various other places on the internet.
6 Sheen, Treasure in Clay, Page 212.
7 Sheen, Most. Rev. Fulton J., Ph.D., D.D., Life of Christ, (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 2008); Page 194, Kindle edition at Amazon.com.
8 Sheen, Fulton J., “Restoring the Vineyard,” What a Priest Should Be: Fulton Sheen Audio Library, FultonSheen.com and CatholicVault.com. Sheen’s audio talks are available in various other places on the internet.
9 Sheen, “Lesson 35: Holy Orders.”
10 Sheen, Fulton J., “Holy Ambassadors — Other Jesuses,” Venerable Fulton J. Sheen: Priesthood, KeeptheFaith.org Saddle River, N.J.
11 Sheen, Treasure in Clay: the Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, Page 214.
13 Ibid., Page 217.
17 Ibid., Page 222.
18 Ibid., Page 210.
19 Sheen, The Priest is Not His Own, Location 792 of 3996.
20 Sheen, Archbishop Fulton J., Called and Chosen: the Never Changing Face of the Priesthood, audio CD collection, St. Joseph Communications, 2002.
22 Sheen, “Mary and the Mass,” 08:52 mark.
23 Sheen, “Pots of Earthenware.”
26 Sheen, “Restoring the Vineyard.”
CREDITS: The image of Sheen at his desk is a photo from October, 1956 and in the public domain. — Sheen in front of the bookshelf, is a photo from 1952, in the public domain, being now the property of the U.S. Library of Congress.