By John Burger
Joan Sheen Cunningham is the niece of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, the pioneering television priest whose body was recently moved from New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the cathedral of Peoria, Illinois. As the Catholic world awaits Sheen’s beatification, Cunningham has published a delightful memoir of her getting to know Sheen, who arranged for her to be educated in New York. My Uncle Fulton Sheen is full of anecdotes of her spending weekends with him and getting to meet some of the famous people Sheen guided on their spiritual journeys.
Cunningham spoke with Catholic Digest about her experiences and what lessons we can learn from Sheen today.
Q Tell me about how you knew Fulton Sheen.
A I was only 10 when I started traveling with him. He talked to my father about coming to New York to go to school there, and then we could go and do different things and hang out together, so to speak.
I was there all through high school, and then I went to college in Philadelphia–same nuns. He loved the Holy Child nuns, so I always went to their schools.
Q What are some of your fondest memories of being with him in New York City?
A We did all kinds of things. He’d take me to Radio City Music Hall, I went ice skating, and all kinds of things. And then weekend trips: California, Florida, different places like that. It was an adventure all the time.
I continued to see him frequently after leaving New York. When I was in college, and he was in Washington, I would go down there on weekends and meet up with him before he went back to New York. I got married in 1949. He went with my husband, and they found an apartment right down the street from his house, so I would see him until he was made an auxiliary bishop of New York and he went to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. I was still in Washington for a couple more years, and then we moved up to New York, and I would see him all the time when he was in New York.
Q Do you remember a time when you observed some response of his to a difficult situation and you thought to yourself, “Wow, that’s really a Christian way to respond, a saintly way to respond?”
A Oh yes, and sometimes I couldn’t understand why he was being so charitable. In fact, I would even say that to him.
Strangers came up to my uncle on the street whenever we went walking around the city together. It seemed everyone in New York knew who he was, yet I didn’t see this as evidence of his notoriety. I just thought people were very friendly.
Sometimes people came right up to his face to tell him how horrible they thought he was! He didn’t mind. He welcomed the interaction. And more often than not, the person would walk away with his opinion of him changed. He truly cared about people, and he showed that by really listening to them. He showed respect for people, even when they were not respectful to him.
As he and I were walking down the street, a man came up to my uncle and was just dreadful. He said things like, “You’re a fraud. The priests and the Church are teaching the wrong things to people!” He went on and on, and my uncle didn’t say a word. Finally, after the man had said his piece, my uncle said, “I think we ought to get together and discuss this further.” He wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to him, inviting him to call “because we have to discuss these topics.” The man was very taken aback, and he later met with my uncle many times. It turned out he was a fallen-away Catholic who had had some problem with a priest. My uncle told me afterward, “See? There was a soul saved. But if I had been disrespectful to him, he wouldn’t have met with me.”
Q You write in the book that you got to meet a lot of famous people through him. How is it that he knew so many famous people?
A They usually contacted him. He would get calls from so many people. Some of them were interested in his religious outlook, and I guess they were leaning towards maybe wanting to know more about the religion, and some of them became his converts that way. But he didn’t call up anybody.
Q What did that mean to him—being so close to so many well-known people?
A He never thought of them as famous people. When I would meet some of these people, he never told me they were famous or anything about them. When I was young, he would never say that, and I would find out from other people that I had been with some famous people. It was the person themselves he was thinking of, not their fame or whatever.
Q So to him, everyone was just a child of God.
A That’s all, yes. He’d pay just as much attention to people he’d just met on the street or people who came to his broadcasts, and he would find out they were having some sort of a problem, so he would get together with them just as much as anyone else.
Q What do you think people can learn from your uncle, especially now in the middle of a pandemic?
A I think he would say to look out for, as much as you could, help some of the less fortunate, and he was always looking out for some of the people who were in need. He would certainly urge prayer and faith in God, because somehow this will all get behind us.