Marshfield clergyman presses for sainthood for Bishop Sheen

Lane Lambert

When Monsignor Andrew Connell offers daily prayers to Jesus, the Blessed Mother, St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese of Lisieux, he also includes his own unofficial saint: the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

For Catholics and even many Protestants of a certain age, the monsignor’s devotion isn’t odd: From the 1950s until his death in 1979, the man known simply as Bishop Sheen was among the nation’s most popular TV personalities.

Anyone who watched his network program, “Life Is Worth Living,” can recall his dramatic stance before the camera, his piercing gaze punctuating an inspirational homily, and his stern comments on the issues of the day, from communism to poverty.

He taught the Christian faith to millions, and it earned him an Emmy Award. Now there’s a campaign to make Bishop Sheen a saint, and Monsignor Connell is doing all he can to back the cause for the cleric who was his friend for 20 years.

“I would love to see it happen,” the now-retired monsignor said. “We haven’t had anybody like him since.”

Tonight at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Monsignor Connell will be among scores of cardinals,  bishops and priests who will celebrate a Mass marking the 30th anniversary of Bishop Sheen’s death, on Dec. 9, 1979. Thousands of lay Catholics are also expected to attend.

The special Mass is being held as the campaign for Bishop Sheen’s sainthood has moved from the U.S. to the Vatican. 

Bishop Sheen would be the first TV personality and first American-born bishop to be sainted.

The campaign – officially known as a Cause for Beatification and Canonization – has  the endorsement of the Rev. James Martin, an editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of the 2006 bestseller “My Life With the Saints.”

“He absolutely should be (sainted),” the Rev. Martin said. “He’d be the first media saint.”

The Rev. Martin compares Bishop Sheen to Saint Paul for using “any means and media to spread the gospel.”

But the Rev. Martin and Monsignor Connell say a 49-year radio and TV career is only one of Bishop Sheen’s qualifications for canonization. Like other saints, he was, at heart, “devoted to Christ and his people,” the monsignor said.

“He was no showman,” said Monsignor Connell, who retired this summer. “He was a true man of God.”

He met Bishop Sheen in 1959, when Monsignor Connell became  director of the Boston  archdiocese’s Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which oversees missions and aid for the poor. Bishop Sheen had become the group’s national director in 1950. 

Monsignor Connell saw Bishop Sheen a half-dozen times a year, sometimes at informal dinners with the bishop and other clerics in New York.

In 1973, Monsignor Connell helped host Bishop Sheen for a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service on Good Friday at the old Hynes Auditorium in Boston. Though Sheen  was 78, he stayed up all night to pray, then led the four-hour worship service kneeling at a prayer bench, rather than standing at a lectern or sitting.

These days Monsignor Connell is praying to Bishop Sheen about his back trouble. The Vatican requires two certified miracles for sainthood, “so I’m trying to see if he can get me a cure,” Monsignor Connell said.

Lane Lambert may be reached at

1895: Born in El Paso, Ill.

1919: Ordained in the diocese of Peoria, Ill. inois

1926:  Works as a teacher at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

1930: Begins broadcasting “The Catholic Hour” radio program; continues to do so until 1952.

1950: Appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

1951: Becomes bishop and begins his TV show “Life Is Worth Living,” which airs on the Dumont and ABC networks until 1957, engaging in a friendly rivalry with Milton Berle.   Bishop Sheen donates his contract fees to the Society for Propagation of the Faith.

1952: Wins Emmy as Most Outstanding Television Personality, quipping that he credits his writers, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

1961:  Syndicated “Fulton Sheen Program” airs on TV until 1968.

1966: Appointed bishop of the Rochester, N.Y., diocese.

1967: Speaks out against Vietnam War while launching  controversial poverty program in Rochester.

1969:  Resigns as bishop and is given ceremonial archbishop title by Pope Paul VI; he  continues to write and speak.

October 1979:  Praised by Pope John Paul II.

Dec. 9, 1979:  Dies in New York and is buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.