Mason Beecroft is a freelance Catholic writer in the Diocese of Tulsa & Eastern Oklahoma.← Return to Essays
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
—Venerable Fulton Sheen
When I was still a Lutheran pastor, I regularly flipped around cable channels in the evening hours after everyone had gone to bed. Whenever I landed on EWTN and saw Bishop Fulton Sheen on “Life is Worth Living,” the channel surfing came to an end. Initially, I was attracted by his dramatic flair as he strode across the screen with a wide smile, cassock and flowing cope, theatrical stares into the camera, flamboyant hand gestures and nearly indecipherable scrawling on a chalkboard while explaining a theological doctrine. He was engaging. And I listened.
The Venerable Fulton Sheen ended each show with the statement, “God loves you.” He preached Jesus Christ and the Christian faith in all of its fullness. While his winsome personality and dramatic presentation stopped me from changing the channel, the clarity of his proclamation and the depth of his understanding of the Christian faith, the modern person and the decaying Western culture made me put down the remote.
Two months before Sheen’s death on December 9, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II sent him a letter of congratulations on the occasion of his 60th anniversary as a priest. He wrote, “God called you to proclaim in an extraordinary way his dynamic word….In these six decades of your priestly service, God has touched the lives of millions of the men and women of our time.”
Sheen was one of the most influential voices for the Catholic faith in the twentieth century. He not only reached millions through his popular television show but also through his radio presence for some 20 years, 66 published books, classroom instruction, public speaking, and countless newspaper and magazine columns. Pope St. John Paul II said to him regarding his ministry, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”
As a Roman Catholic bishop, he was an unlikely candidate to be the first televangelist in Eisenhower America. It is even more remarkable that his popularity would attract an audience of 30 million, appear on the cover of Time and win an Emmy. His Cause for Canonization was opened in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as someone who had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and proclaimed him “Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.”
Born in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 to Newt and Delia Sheen, Sheen grew up in a devout Catholic home. He graduated valedictorian from his high school, attended minor seminary, and completed his training for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained in 1919 and then started his graduate studies. After earning two bachelor degrees at The Catholic University of America, he received his doctorate from the University of Louvain. His dissertation served as the basis for his book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas, which included an introduction by G. K. Chesterton.
Sheen then took a faculty position at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1926. For the next 23 years, he developed his skills as a scholar, educator, preacher and evangelist. During his tenure at CUA, his reputation as a published academic and dynamic communicator attracted not only throngs of students, but the attention of the media. In 1930, he was asked to serve as a fill-in on “The Catholic Hour” radio program. His phenomenal popularity resulted in the program asking him to continue as a weekly host for the show. He hosted this show for the next 20 years.
Sheen’s widespread popularity can be attributed to his gift of addressing significant theological, political and cultural topics with humor, depth and clarity. Having read the entire corpus of Aquinas in Latin, he used this foundational knowledge of the Catholic faith to not only proclaim Christ but also to apply the Gospel to the difficult moral decisions and complicated social issues of the time.
The impact of his ministry is revealed in a 1937 letter that he he wrote to the CUA rector, Msgr. Joseph Corrigan, “During the past year letters demanding personal attention have run between 75 and 100 a day…. This coupled with classes never given with less than six hours preparation for each lecture has left me physically exhausted. However the good to be done is such that one dare not shrink from its opportunities for apostolate.”
In 1950, Sheen left CUA to become the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Then, after being consecrated as a bishop in 1951, he started his famous television series, “Life Is Worth Living.” Initially, only three stations carried the program. But after Life and Time magazines did feature stories on it, the show spread nationwide and drew millions of viewers, propelling him to unprecedented fame and influence for a Catholic clergyman in America.
He won the 1952 Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Upon receiving the award, Sheen credited Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for their valuable contribution to his success. His show was so popular at the time that it competed with popular television celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. When Berle’s ratings declined and Sheen’s increased, Berle commented, “If I’m going to be eased off TV by anyone, it’s better that I lose to the one for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”
Sheen had an uncanny ability to explain the mysteries of the Catholic faith in ways that were engaging and easy to understand, while never retreating from difficult theological or social topics. Each episode opened with him in full vestments offering a few jokes to introduce the topic and then writing “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) on his blackboard. After presenting a significant theological or philosophical issue, he would instruct the audience on how to apply the lesson to daily life and would finish with an exhortation. He would then graciously bow to applause from the studio audience.
For the six years that “Life Is Worth Living” was on-air, Sheen shared the hope of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with an increasingly secular nation and made the faith of the Catholic Church accessible to the American public. This was significant for a Catholic community that was sorely misunderstood during that time. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI recalled how “Fulton Sheen … would fascinate us in the evenings with his talks.
In addition to this popular show, Sheen was active in raising money to support Catholic missions through his role as director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In this role, he influenced the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world. He is also considered instrumental in the conversion of an untold number of people to Catholicism, from working-class New Yorkers he encountered in daily life to a number of recognizable celebrities who sought him out for instruction.
After the show ended, Sheen continued to be a popular author and speaker. In 1966, he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester but resigned from that position in 1969. In his resignation letter, Bishop Sheen wrote, “I am not retiring, only retreading.” Pope Paul VI then named him Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.
The grace of making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament was a central theme to Sheen’s preaching and teaching throughout his ministry. Sheen also practiced this advice. Throughout his ministry, friends and witnesses commented that he never failed to keep his holy hour from the day of his priestly ordination until his death on the floor of his private chapel in 1979. Sheen once stated, “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”
Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization was opened by the Diocese of Peoria in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him “Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.” In 2014, a reported miracle attributed to his intercession was approved by both the medical board that reports to the Vatican and the theological commission that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.