The holy humor of Fulton Sheen
By Katie Bogner
“There is a close relationship between faith and humor. . . . He who possesses faith knows that this world is not the only one, and therefore can be regarded rather lightly.” From “Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen”
As the beginning of a new school year draws near, students are eagerly anticipating the return to their classrooms and studies. Archbishop Fulton Sheen himself knew that excitement, first as a student at St. Mary’s Cathedral School and Spalding Institute in Peoria, then St. Viator’s College and St. Paul Seminary before eventually studying for the prestigious Aggrege Degree from University of Louvain. The celebrated student then became a teacher, including 23 years at Catholic University of America as a popular professor.
Archbishop Sheen’s intelligence and education certainly made him a prime candidate to pass along the teachings of the Church, both to his students and to the audiences of his lectures and sermons, but there was more to his style than just information. He said, “A touch of humor at the beginning is a good approach.” All his television episodes began with a trademark joke and he often started his classes in the same way.
In his autobiography he wrote that he was naturally serious but was also fond of humor and laughter. Archbishop Sheen’s humor was compelling because he could transition straight from a story that had the audience laughing into the details of a key theological concept. He kept his audience engaged and was therefore better able to share with them the truth of the Gospel.
Full of parables and paradoxes, symbols and surprises, the Bible shows that God Himself finds joy in creation and can teach through humor. In an episode of “Life is Worth Living” called “The Divine Sense of Humor,” Sheen says that the only thing Christ took seriously while here on earth was the salvation of souls. The joy to be found in humor is a gift and we do well to thank our Creator for including it in the collection of our emotions.
Archbishop Sheen said, “The only time laughter is wicked is when it is turned against Him Who gave it.” Just as it was in his life, humor can be a tool to help us take the truths of our faith and make them relatable and relevant. May we use our laughter in a way that welcomes others and transforms our days into occasions for joy.
LEARNING FROM SHEEN
Watch any of Fulton Sheen’s TV shows — here’s one sample — and enjoy the jokes at the beginning of each episode, or read the chapter in “Treasure in Clay” called “The Lighter Side,” which features some of the humorous moments from his own life.
SHARING SHEEN WITH YOUR FAMILY
Together with your children, watch the clip of the TV game show “What’s My Line” featuring Fulton Sheen (available on YouTube here). Ask them about the humor exhibited by Archbishop Sheen and the contestants. Talk as a family about how humor is a gift and ways it can be used to share the joy of Christ with others.
Katie Bogner is the junior high faith formation teacher at St. Philomena School in Peoria. She blogs at looktohimandberadiant.com.