Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Catholic Media's Greatest Star
When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra.
As 1999 ended, there was speculation about who had been the greatest, most popular, most significant, or most influential Catholic of the preceding 100 years. When it came to the world, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa scored high on virtually every list. In the United States, names such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Al Smith, and John F. Kennedy received considerable attention. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received little notice.
It is my contention that Sheen was the most influential Catholic of 20th-century America. Indeed, it could be argued that his impact was far superior to others receiving more attention in polls and in the media.
In the first place, he was the most popular public speaker in the Church, and arguably the best. Millions listened to his Catholic Hour radio programs from 1928 to 1952. Millions also received printed copies of these talks. In 1949, Gladys Baker, a noted journalist, observed that Sheen was “the name priest in America.” She added, “By members of all faiths, Monsignor Sheen is conceded to be the most electric orator of our times.”
When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. A television critic exclaimed, “Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is…is sensational.” In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, winning over media giants Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After winning, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. The journalist James Conniff stated, “No Catholic bishop has burst on the world with such power as Sheen wields since long before the Protestant Reformation.” By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.
No record can be made of the thousands of sermons, speeches, and retreats Sheen gave over the decades, often to large audiences. When he was scheduled to preach at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, 6,000 people regularly packed the church. On Easter Sunday 1941, 7,500 worshippers were jammed into the Cathedral, and 800 waited outside, hoping to get in. On Good Friday, his sermons were broadcast outdoors to the thousands standing outside St. Patrick’s. “For three hours,” the New York Times reported, “the heart of Manhattan’s most congested midtown area became a miniature St. Peter’s Square. The phenomenon is repeated for the evening service.” Many of his television shows, sermons, and speeches are still available on video and audiotape.
An intellectual, theologian, and philosopher of the first rank, Sheen was one of the Church in America’s most prolific writers. Over a period of 54 years, he was the author of 64 books. In addition, he published 65 booklets, pamphlets, and printed radio and television talks. He wrote countless magazine and newspaper articles. In the early 1950s, he was writing two regular newspaper columns, God Love You and Bishop Sheen Writes (which was syndicated in the secular press and ran for 30 years). He edited two magazines, one, Mission, for 16 years.
Sheen’s expertise included a wide variety of topics, from Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Dewey. His academic credentials were excellent; he was the first American to be awarded a rare postdoctorate degree from the prestigious University of Louvain. His linguistic achievements were admirable. His writing ability was also exceptional, his style being as lucid and yet consistently less pedantic than that of the great Anglican apologist, C.S. Lewis. More than a dozen of his books remain in print. Fifteen anthologies of his writings have appeared, four in the 1990s.
Reprinted from the “Catholic Education Resource Center”
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