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.
Sheen would become a towering figure in the Catholic Church in the 20th century, known to millions as a brilliant orator and 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. He 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 modern efforts to “reform” the priesthood by dispatching with celibacy or even ordaining women. 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
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; 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” (this talk and many others are available at FultonSheen.com). “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.”
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, Sheen argued, celibacy is a gift from Christ to his priests.
Celibacy, Sheen said during one retreat, is a treasure 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” (“Pots of Earthenware,” Prayer, Suffering and the Spiritual Life: Fulton Sheen Audio Library).
In his retreat for priests, “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” (“Restoring the Vineyard,” What a Priest Should Be: Fulton Sheen Audio Library).
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” (“Holy Orders”).
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” (Treasure in Clay: the Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, [New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1980], page 214).
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,” he wrote in Treasure in Clay. “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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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