February 19, 2005


Fulton J. Sheen, Catholic Champion (THOMAS C. REEVES, The Catholic League)

When American history textbooks mention Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen at all, it is briefly and in connection with the allegedly "feel good" Christianity of the 1950s. To some Americans, Sheen was merely a glib, superficial television performer and pop writer who blossomed briefly on the national scene and rapidly disappeared.

Many orthodox Catholics have a clearer understanding of Sheen, for more than a dozen of his books remain in print, several anthologies of his writings are for sale, and his television shows and tapes continue to be popular. The Eternal Word Television Network regularly features Sheen videotapes. Moreover, an effort is underway, formally inaugurated by the late Cardinal O'Connor of New York, to have the Archbishop canonized.

In preparing America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen I discovered a brilliant, charismatic, and holy man who has been underestimated by historians, largely overlooked by the contemporary mass media, and forgotten by too many Catholics. Indeed, I came to the conclusion that Fulton J. Sheen was the most important Catholic of twentieth century America.[...]

In 1928, he went on the “Catholic Hour,” a nationally broadcast radio program. He quickly became the program's most popular preacher and for more than two decades was asked to preach during Lent and at Holy Days. Vast quantities of letters and financial donations poured in on “Catholic Hour” officials whenever Sheen spoke.

Sheen was soon in demand throughout the country and Western Europe as a preacher, retreat leader, and teacher. He preached annually at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he packed the huge church and received much attention in the press.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, one of the most powerful figures in the Roman Catholic Church, took Sheen under his wing after World War II, and in 1948 invited him to join a world-wide tour and assume the bulk of the journey's preaching duties. The two men greatly appreciated each other's talents (the Cardinal was a superb administrator and fund-raiser), and in 1950 Spellman had Sheen named to head the American branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Church's principal source of missionary funds. The appointment came with a miter, and in 1951, Sheen was consecrated in Rome. Sheen flung himself into his new duties, revealing his great skill as a fund-raiser. He continued to produce books, articles, and newspaper columns at an astonishing rate, and accepted invitations to preach throughout the country and across the world. Sheen's personal success at winning converts — the list included writer Clare Boothe Luce, industrialist Henry Ford II, and ex-Communist Louis Budenz — attracted national attention. Unmentioned in the press were the thousands of average Americans who came into the Church because of Sheen's efforts.

When, in 1951, the Archdiocese of New York decided to enter the world of television, Sheen was a natural choice to appear on screen. The initial half-hour lectures were broadcast on the tiny Dumont Network, opposite big budget programs by comedian Milton Berle, "Mr. Television," and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. No one gave Sheen a chance to compete effectively. Soon, however, Sheen took the country by storm, winning an Emmy, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and entering the "most admired" list of Americans. In its second year, "Life Is Worth Living" moved to the ABC Network and had a sponsor, the Admiral Corporation.

Sheen's talks, delivered in the full regalia of a bishop, were masterful. He worked on each presentation for 35 hours, delivering it in Italian and French to clarify his thoughts before going on television. He at no time used notes or cue cards, and always ended on time. The set was a study with a desk, a few chairs, and some books; the only prop was a blackboard. A four-foot statue of Madonna and Child on a pedestal was clearly visible. Sheen's humor, charm, intelligence, and considerable acting skill radiated throughout the "Live Is Worth Living" series, captivating millions eager to hear Christian (only indirectly Catholic) answers to life's common problems.

Some of Sheen's talks and writings dealt with Communism, which the Bishop, a student of Marxism and a personal friend of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, thought a dire threat to the nation and the world. But at no time did Sheen appear with or praise Senator Joe McCarthy (he had little use for politicians of any stripe) or directly support the Second Red Scare, which swept through the country during the early 1950s.

Sheen was also a student of Freud, and was consistently critical of Freudian psychology. Sheen's best-selling book, Peace Of Soul, presented his views on the subject forcefully. At about the same time, the bishop wrote a powerful book on the Virgin Mary, The World's First Love, followed a few years later by an equally impressive Life of Christ.

For all of his concerns about worldly issues, Sheen was above all a supernaturalist, who fervently believed that God is love, that miracles happen, and that the Catholic Church best taught the divinely revealed truths about life and death. As he put it in Peace Of Soul, "nothing really matters except the salvation of a soul."

Still, Sheen was not a plaster saint. Vanity was a constant problem for him, and he knew it. As both priest and bishop, Sheen lived and dressed well and enjoyed the publicity he received in the media and the applause of adoring crowds. Perhaps more serious was an offense that was not discovered until twenty years after his death: while a young teacher at Catholic University, in order to expedite his academic career, he invented a second doctorate for himself.

Sheen could also be difficult at times when his authority was challenged. In the early 1950s, he and Cardinal Spellman, a very proud man, engaged in a bitter feud largely over the dispersal of Society funds. The struggle led to a private audience before Pius XII, who sided with Sheen. In a rage, Spellman terminated Sheen's television series, made him a local outcast, and drove him from the Archdiocese.

Mr. Reeves biography of JFK is outstanding and, along with Michael Beschloss's Crisis Years, should be required reading for anyone who still admires Kennedy. He also has a blog at History News Network

Fulton J. Sheen in word and deed: Peace of Soul remains as profound a book now as it was 50 years ago (PAUL KENGOR, 1/07/05, National Catholic Reporter)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. Sadly, Sheen’s name increasingly escapes our nation’s collective memory, even among Catholics.

Bishop Sheen was extraordinarily popular. By April 1952, he was on the cover of TIME magazine. He won the 1952 Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality,” beating out legends such as Jimmy Durante, Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey. Stated differently, these Hollywood superstars, these icons of the screen, lost to a priest. A nationwide poll of radio and television editors named Bishop Sheen TV’s “Man of the Year.” In the 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon thanked him for his “outstanding contributions to a better understanding of the American way of life.” President Dwight Eisenhower invited him to the White House. This esteem escalated over the years, to the point where Bishop Sheen’s death on Dec. 9, 1979, and his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Dec. 14 were major stories.

A poll taken at the end of the 20th century by the Internet Catholic Daily, with 23,455 respondents, listed the top four Catholics of the century as Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Blessed Padre Pio and Bishop Sheen. The Catholic Almanac for the year 2000 rightly described him as “perhaps the most popular and socially influential American Catholic of the 20th century.”

Bishop Sheen was so renowned because he was so gifted. He was a superb communicator, through the spoken word, on radio first and then television, and the written word, delivered via a syndicated column and innumerable books and pamphlets. [...]

The global Catholic television network, EWTN, reruns broadcasts of his television show, Life Is Worth Living, on Mondays at 2:00 p.m. and Fridays at 9:00 p.m. (EST). Watching these broadcasts evokes many feelings, including the sense that one has hopped into a time capsule. Additionally, a captivating, superb biography of Bishop Sheen was written in 2001 by Thomas C. Reeves, titled America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen.

-Sheen, revisited (Amy Wellborn, 12/10/04)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2005 3:57 PM

Bishop Sheen had the ability to connect with people (and not just Catholics) on his WABD television program from NYC in the manner of Ronald Reagan. Black-and-white kinescopes of those 1950s programs are still available.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at February 19, 2005 7:53 PM


They show them on EWTN sometimes--it's great.

Posted by: oj at February 19, 2005 8:13 PM

When prominent NYC communist Bella Dodd was at the breaking point after learning how vicious the cause she had devoted her life to was, Monsignor Sheen saved her life. She wrote in "Heart of Darkness":

(A friend asked)Bella, would you like to see a priest?

Startled by the question, I was amazed at the intensity with which I answered, Yes, I would.

Perhaps we can reach Monsignor Sheen at Catholic University, he said. Rose put in several calls and an appointment was made for me late that evening at the Monsignors home.

I was silent as we drove to Chevy Chase. All the canards against the Catholic Church which I had heard and tolerated, which even by my silence I had approved, were threatening the tiny flame of longing for faith within me.

I thought of many things on that ride, of the word fascist, used over and over by the communist press in describing the role of the Church in the Spanish Civil War.

I also thought of the word Inquisition so skillfully used on all occasions. Other terms came to me reactionary, totalitarian, dogmatic, old-fashioned. For years they had been used to engender fear and hatred in people like me.

A thousand fears assailed me. Would he insist that I talk to the FBI? Would he insist that I testify? Would he make me write articles? Would he see me at all?

And then before my minds eye flashed the cover of a communist pamphlet on which was a communist extending a hand to a Catholic worker. The pamphlet was a reprint of a speech by the French Communist leader Thorez and it flattered the workers by not attacking their religion. It skillfully undermined the hierarchy in the pattern of the usual communist attempt to drive a wedge between the Catholic and his priest.

By what right, I thought, was I seeking the help of someone I had helped revile, even if only by my silence? How dared I come to a representative of that hierarchy?

The screeching of the brakes brought me back to reality. We had arrived, and my friend was wishing me luck as I got out of the car. I rang the doorbell and was ushered into a small room. While I waited, the struggle within me began again. Had there been an easy exit I would have run out, but in the midst of my turmoil Monsignor Fulton Sheen walked into the room, his silver cross gleaming, a warm smile in his eyes.

He held out his hand as he crossed the room. Doctor, Im glad youve come, he said. His voice and his eyes had a welcome which I had not expected, and it caught me unaware. I started to thank him for letting me come but I realized that the words which came did not make sense. I began to cry, and heard my own voice repeating over and over and with agony, They say I am against the Negro. That accusation in the Party resolution had made me suffer more than all the other vilification and 1, who had for years been regarded as a hard Communist, wept as I felt the sting anew.

Monsignor Sheen put his hand on my shoulder to comfort me. Dont worry, he said. This thing will pass, and he led me gently to a little chapel. We both knelt before a statue of Our Lady. I dont remember praying, but I do remember that the battle within me ceased, my tears were dried, and I was conscious of stillness and peace.

When we left the chapel Monsignor Sheen gave me a rosary. I will be going to New York next winter, he said. Come to me and Ill give you instructions in the Faith.


Posted by: David at February 19, 2005 8:59 PM

Where's today's Sheen?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 22, 2005 5:22 PM

Everywhere. He won.

Posted by: oj at February 22, 2005 5:49 PM