Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, the oldest of four sons of a farmer. Though he was known as Fulton, his mother's maiden name, he was baptized as Peter John Sheen. As an infant, Sheen contracted tuberculosis. After the family moved to nearby Peoria, Illinois, Sheen's first role in the Roman Catholic Church was as an altar boy at St. Mary's Cathedral.
Sheen attended Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota before his ordination on September 20, 1919, then followed that with further studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.. His youthful appearance was still evident on one occasion when a local priest who was unable to celebrate Mass asked Sheen to substitute for him.
Sheen earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium in 1923. While there, he became the first American ever to win the Cardinal Mercier award for the best philosophical treatise.
Sheen then taught theology at St. Edmund's College, Ware in England. In 1926, the Bishop of his hometown in Peoria asked him to take over St. Patrick's Parish. After eight months, Sheen returned to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to teach philosophy.
Sheen was consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951 . He served as an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York from 1951 to 1965. In 1951 he also began a weekly television program on the DuMont network, Life is Worth Living. The show, scheduled for Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m., was not expected to offer much of a challenge against ratings giants Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, but surprisingly held its own, causing Berle to joke, "He uses old material, too." In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for his efforts, accepting the acknowledgment by saying, "I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."
The program consisted of Sheen simply speaking in front of a live audience, often speaking on the theology of current topics such as the evils of Communism or the usage of psychology, occasionally using a chalkboard. One of his best-remembered presentations came in February 1953, when he forcefully denounced the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Sheen gave a dramatic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, substituting the names of Caesar, Cassius, Mark Antony, and Brutus with those of prominent Soviet leaders: Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky. He concluded by saying, "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." On March 5, 1953, Stalin died.
The show ran until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. In 1958, he became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, serving for eight years before being appointed Bishop of Rochester on October 26, 1966. Sheen also hosted a nationally-syndicated series, The Fulton Sheen Program, from 1961 to 1968 (first in black and white and then in color). The format of this series was basically the same as Life is Worth Living.
On October 2, 1979, two months before Sheen's death, Pope John Paul II visited St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York and embraced Sheen, saying, "You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church."
Sheen is buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, near the deceased Archbishops of New York. The official repository of Sheen's papers, television programs, and other materials is at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York
Re-runs of Sheen's various programs continue to be aired on the Eternal Word Television Network, introduced by Joseph Campanella. Re-runs are also aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. In addition to his television appearances, Archbishop Sheen can also be heard on Relevant Radio.
On February 2, 2008 the archives of Archbishop Sheen were sealed at a ceremony during a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Illinois. The archive was shipped to Rome where the beatification and subsequent canonization cause of Archbishop Sheen was officially opened on April 15, 2008.