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Bishop Fulton Sheen: The First “Televangelist”

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(See Cover) Manhattan’s Adelphi Theater, off Broadway, was filled with a waiting audience. “Thirty seconds!” a tense voice called. The theater hushed.

Spotlights flooded the stage with an almost supernatural brightness. “Five seconds, five!” Gentle music filled the air and a technician waved his hand. Calmly striding from the wings came a stately man. He wore a black

cassock with purple piping; from his shoulders billowed a purple cape and on his chest gleamed a gold cross. He looked taller than his 5 ft. 8 in. He bowed graciously into the wind of applause, smiling a boyish smile. Then he turned his gaunt, discreetly made-up face (Vs base and light tan powder) toward one of the three television cameras on the stage. He said: “Friends, thanks for allowing me to

come into your home again …” A microphone, trembling from a slender rod above the speaker’s purple zucchetto (skull cap), picked up the resonant tones of his voice—soft, yet suggesting the possibility of thunder—and spirited them across the land to more than 2,000,000 TV viewers. The voice belonged to His Excellency the Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen, auxiliary Bishop of New York, perhaps the most famous preacher in the U.S., certainly America’s best-known Roman Catholic priest, and the newest star of U.S. television. Telegenic Cleric.

“He’s terrific,” says a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which produces Bishop Sheen’s program. “We get four times as many requests for tickets as we can fill. We turn down a lot of requests that sound as if they might come from girls’ schools. We don’t want any squealing. First thing you know, he’d turn into a clerical Sinatra. At first we were worried about the show. You know,

a half hour of just talking, just standing there looking at the cameras. After all, people have double chins and all that sort of thing. But not he. He’s telegenic. He’s wonderful. The gestures, the timing, the voice. If he came out in a barrel and read the telephone book, they’d love him.” The Sheen show, called Life Is Worth Living, is a half-hour talk on such subjects as freedom, pleasure, war & peace, love. The talks, Christian in outlook but not specifically Roman Catholic, are designed to appeal to listeners of all faiths. The Du Mont network, which presents the show but gets no money for it, gave Sheen what the trade calls an “obituary spot,” i.e., conflicting with two very popular shows on other networks, Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra (Tues. 8 p.m., E.S.T.). Against this formidable competition, Sheen has made a spectacular

showing. Du Mont was overwhelmed by the mail response (8,500 letters a week). The program, now carried by 17 stations, has a

Trendex popularity rating of 13.7, unequaled by any other “inspirational” or intellectual show. TV columnists raved over it. Wrote New York World-Telegram & Sun’s Harriet Van Home: “It’s quite possible that he is the finest Catholic orator since Peter the Hermit.” Berle’s popularity rating has recently dropped ten points, and some columnists attribute this to Sheen. Muses Berle: “If I’m going to be eased off the top by anyone, it’s better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”

In the New York archdiocese, a standard Tuesday question among Catholic clerics has come to be: “Who’re you going to tune in tonight? Uncle Miltie or Uncle Fultie?”

Hair Shirt & Cadillac. Some people think a television screen a strange place to encounter a bishop. Fulton Sheen sees nothing strange about it. He has been broadcasting for 25 years (22 of them on the Catholic Hour). He has spoken millions of words—at everything from testimonial dinners to Southampton weddings, from university commencements to Brooklyn communion breakfasts. He has preached in great cathedrals and on Alabama street corners; he would (in the words of Christ’s instruction to the apostles) preach upon the housetops, if the occasion arose.

Bishop Sheen is a unique product of two unique historic forces—the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America. Into the making of Fulton Sheen went St. Paul and Thomas Jefferson, Savonarola and George F. Babbitt.

Sheen is a dedicated man of God; he is also a go-getter. He can be truly moving as well as thoroughly corny. He can write a learned treatise on theology (he taught for 25 years at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) as well as a snappy fund-raising plug.

He moves among the famous and mighty, but he gives instruction in the Catholic faith to anyone who comes to him. He tries to guide men toward the City of God, but he is a well-known figure in the City of Man. He used to ride in a big black Cadillac, but friends report that he sometimes wears a cilicio (something like a hair shirt) under his well-tailored cassock.

He has pitted himself against opponents even more formidable than Milton Berle —Darwin, Freud, Marx and Satan. He gives hell to democrats for not being democratic, to capitalists for being greedy, to all the West for giving Communism an opening by not living up to its own Christian faith. He has harangued statesmen about war & peace and young brides about their sex life. He has announced that he prays every morning for Joseph Stalin, and he has approvingly quoted a heretic (Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) on the Catholic Hour. His influence as a preacher is incalculably great.

“The world,” he says, “has suddenly become missionary-minded. The two great missionary movements which campaign for mankind are Communism and Christianity.” U.S. director of the Pontifical

Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Sheen is himself perhaps the most successful missionary of them all. He brought into the Church such unlikely prospects as Colonel Horace Mann of Tennessee, credited with leading a mudslinging campaign against Catholic Al Smith; Heywood Broun, archliberal freethinker; Louis Budenz, managing editor of the Communist Daily Worker. Other notable converts: Author Clare Boothe Luce, Violinist Fritz Kreisler, Broadway Stage Designer Jo Mielziner, Motor Scion Henry Ford II. Recently, he has been giving instruction to the wife of a diplomat and to Screen Star Virginia Mayo. He has converted thousands of unknown people, including a hard-boiled bank robber. Says he: “I do not keep count. If I did, I might lose my power.”

P.J. to Fulton. The great Sheen voice was first heard 57 years ago in the rooms above Newton Sheen’s hardware store in El Paso, Ill. (pop. 1,800). It was quite a voice, even then. “Sakes alive, you could hear him crying three blocks away,” recalls an uncle. “And when we were out riding in the buggy, Grandfather Fulton used to say, ‘If you don’t stop that crying I’m going to dump you out in the tumble-weeds.’ ”

When Sheen was small, the family moved to Peoria, 30 miles away. His father alternated between storekeeping and farming. Young Sheen was a frail boy who never ate much and sometimes annoyed his three brothers by curling up with a book rather than help with the chores. He was christened Peter John, and called P.J. as a boy, but he preferred Fulton (his mother’s maiden name), and used it until it stuck. His father was a Roman Catholic who had drifted out of the Church but came back to it, and P.J. grew up in a good Catholic home, where no evening passed without the Rosary being recited. Priests often dropped in for supper, or just to talk. Fulton wanted to be a priest as far back as he can remember.

He went to Catholic schools, served as an altar boy at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Peoria, and got an early introduction to the practical side of religion when he sold advertising for the church paper, the Cathedral Messenger. He was always in a hurry, even then.

A Speaker Is Made. At St. Viator College, Bourbonnais, Ill., he was an excellent student. He did not go in for sports, preferring dramatics and essays for the college magazine. (Sample: “I can imagine a St. Francis looking at a virgin lily and saying: ‘Who made you, little one, and who made you so lovely and so frail?’ ”

He made the debating team in his freshman year. The night before the Big Debate with Notre Dame, the coach called him aside and told him bluntly: “Sheen, you’re absolutely the worst speaker I ever heard.” Whereupon he stood Sheen in a corner, took one paragraph from his prepared speech and made Sheen repeat it for an hour. Then he said: “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” Sheen thought hard and said: “I’m not natural.”

St. Viator’s won the debate. Sheen has been determinedly natural ever since.

He never seemed seriously interested in girls, but occasionally he did goout with them. Old schoolmates particularly remember a French girl whom Sheen dated; she later became a nun.

A Star Is Born. After a year at St. Paul Seminary, Sheen was ordained in 1919, then did two years’ graduate work at Catholic University. In Washington, he made his debut in the pulpit. The priest who was supposed to preach one Sunday at a Washington church had to leave town because of illness in the family, and asked Sheen to substitute for him. Fearing that the church’s pastor would think he was too young, Sheen did not present himself at the rectory till five minutes before Mass was supposed to start. The pastor said gruffly: “Get over to the church. The other altar boys are dressed already.” But Sheen made a hit: “They asked me back the next week,” he says.

With his brother Tom (now a Manhattan doctor), Sheen went to Europe to study at the University of Louvain, Belgium. To learn French, they first went to a small resort town where no one spoke any English. Soon afterwards, in a Paris boardinghouse, Sheen met a Frenchwoman who lived on the floor above. In deep distress over the breakup of her home, she told Sheen she was about to commit suicide. Sheen begged her to wait just nine days. She agreed, and for eight evenings Sheen sat with her, talking religion. His French was still so halting that he kept a dictionary open before him. On the ninth day, the woman entered the Church.

Sheen did brilliantly at Louvain; he was the first American to win the Cardinal Mercier prize, awarded once a decade for the best philosophical treatise. In 1925, Louvain granted him the degree (he has eleven others) of which he is proudest—Agrégé en Philosophic (a kind of Ph.D. plus).

He went to Britain for a year to be assistant to the pastor of St. Patrick’s, Soho, a poor, drab parish, half-Italian, half-London Irish, with a sprinkling of Chinese. He is still a loved and legendary figure at St. Patrick’s. Whenever he goes to London, he preaches there, and the parishioners eagerly look forward to his visits. Said one last week, hoping for another visit this month, “Things seem very confused. Then you have a talk with Bishop Sheen. Then things clear up. Then they grow confused again.”

Sheen also taught at London’s seminary, St. Edmund’s College, where he remembers another promising young priest, Ronald Knox (TIME, Feb. 11). By that time Father Sheen was 30, and already had something of a name. Oxford wanted him to teach philosophy; so did Columbia. Then came the damping orders: home to St. Patrick’s, Peoria.

It was a blow, but Father Sheen went to work in St. Patrick’s, Peoria, one of the poorest parishes in town. He made his sick calls and administered the last rites, begged for contributions and celebrated Mass. His sermons were so popular that people had to come an hour early to get seats; he drew large crowds from other parishes (which did not make him popu lar with their priests). After nine months, Peoria’s Bishop Dunne called Sheen and told him that he was to go teach at Catholic University. “I promised you to them three years ago, but everyone said you’d gotten so high-hat in Europe that you wouldn’t take orders any more. But you’ve been a good boy, so run along.” In & Out of the Basement. Sheen be came one of the most popular professors at Catholic University. And his fame grew. Washington hostesses began to consider him a prize catch (he rarely accepted their invitations). He lived in a light, airy house (designed to order for him), startlingly modernistic, but comfortable and efficient. From his study, Sheen faced gently rolling hills through a large picture window; there he did most of his popular writing. For heavier tasks he would move to his “workshop” in the furnace room, piled high with books and papers, where he wrote with his back to the furnace.

He did a good deal of moving back & forth between the airy study and the serious basement. The majority of Sheen’s books (Peace of Soul, Lift Up Your Heart, Three to Get Married) are upstairs work, designed for the middle-brow reader. But some are serious, furnace-room philosophy (God and Intelligence, The Philosophy of Religion). This week Sheen published his 36th full-length book, The World’s First Love, about the Virgin Mary. Like all his others, the book is dedicated to Mary — or, as he puts it in the dedication, “the Woman Who, in a world of Reds, shows forth the blue of hope.” Tiller of the Soul. More than anything else, it was Sheen’s conversions that made him a national figure. His many well-meaning friends sometimes act as self-appointed talent scouts, and give him suggestions on likely prospects. Sometimes Sheen himself takes the offensive. When he got into a newspaper controversy with Heywood Broun over evolution, he called his adversary on the telephone. “I want to see you,” said Sheen.

“What about?” asked Broun.

“Your soul.”

They met at a Manhattan hotel and talked. Later, Sheen called Broun up again. “Heywood,” he said, “you’ve run a thousand miles. You better come in and let me service you.” Nine years later, seven months before his death, Broun entered the Church.

How does Sheen do it?

He lists three reasons why people turn to the Church: 1) a moral crisis, i.e., consciousness of sin. “Sin becomes the occasion of a loneliness and a void which God alone can relieve.” 2) A spiritual or intellectual crisis, i.e., “the growing sense of dissatisfaction with their own ordinariness.” 3) A physical crisis, such as illness or accident. Sometimes, adds Sheen, people who most vociferously hate the Church are the closest to conversion: “Hatred indicates interest.” The pattern of instruction is always the same. Sheen starts with reason, firmly discouraging all mysticism or merely emotional belief. When people tell him they believe in God, he wants to know why, and won’t let them off the hook till they can recite the logical proofs for God’s existence. These early lessons on reason prove the most difficult; the going gets easier, rather than rougher, when Sheen reaches matters of faith.

Sheen’s average course of instruction lasts 25 hours, at the rate of one hour a week. He can usually tell after the first couple of hours who will make it and who won’t. In private instruction, more than 95% of the people become converts. In groups, the percentage is much lower; out of a class of 60, only 15 may be baptized. Sheen vigorously disclaims any personal credit for these conversions. He considers himself merely “a spiritual agriculturist [who] tills the soil. All the tilling in the world would make no difference if the seed had not been dropped by God.”

But Sheen knows his agriculture. He never uses pressure. “You will incur no obligation,” he tells people who come to him for instruction. He goes easy on argument (“Win an argument and lose a soul”), never gets angry (“At least not any more”). But he is relentlessly logical. One of his converts, a middle-aged man in the textile business, reports: “I had been avoiding a decision for years. Sheen doesn’t let you do that. He throws it right in your teeth. The one thing that was hard for me as a Jew to accept was the divinity of Christ. I kept putting it off. Then, when Sheen began to weed out those in the class that weren’t really interested, he finished one lecture with: ‘What think ye of Christ?’ I wandered around freezing in Central Park for hours that night, and the week that followed was the worst I ever spent. But I couldn’t put off the decision any longer. Something about him wouldn’t let me.”

Sheen has great personal magnetism. It is in his voice, in his hands (which always linger in a handshake), above all, in his eyes. They are one of the most remarkable pairs of eyes in America, looking out from deep sockets, pupil and iris almost merged in one luminous disk which creates the optical illusion that he not only looks at people but through them and at everything around them. Strong men have been known to flinch before that gaze.

Sheen now gives instruction only to ten people, in individual sessions (his latest group includes an interior decorator and a maid), and receives about one convert a week into the Church. Because of his other duties, he has thought of giving up his conversion work entirely—”You have to be enthusiastic, and when you’ve had a long day it isn’t always easy”—but decided to keep it up. “If I have more talents than others, they came from our Lord and they must be used for His work.”

Greatest Actor? But Bishop Sheen is not using the coaxial cable to try to convert America to the Catholic faith. What he has to say on TV is not dogma, but a mixture of common sense, logic and Christian ethics. Says Sheen: “Americans are like dry wood that can be ignited—with inspiration. People want to be good. But they want reasons. If you give people a reason, they at least have to have a reason to disagree. This helps all of us. I try to bring fresh air into the home.”

Sheen’s TV performance is remarkable not only for its length but for its ad-liberty. He speaks for 28 minutes straight, without script or cue cards. Without even a written outline, he produces facts, dates, six-digit statistics with the precision of an electronic calculator. For about ten minutes before the show he usually meditates, on an unused part of the stage, set for a murder mystery or a comedy show. Once on the air, he never fumbles or rambles. He prides himself on the fact that in-a quarter-century of broadcasting, he has never finished more than two seconds early or late. The trick: “Always know how you’re going to end. It may be a paragraph or a sentence, but know how long it’s going to take to say it. Then you watch the clock; when there’s just time enough for the conclusion, say it, and you’re finished—on time.”

Loretta Young, a friend and a good Catholic, calls him “the greatest actor of our time.” Sheen’s voice (with a wisp of a brogue) ranges from tremulous whispers to Old Testament rage. His hands finger the chain of his pectoral cross, or spread outward in supplication, or hammer down a point in the air, or thrust skyward. He uses no props except a blackboard on which he draws an occasional simple diagram. His serious passages are carefully balanced with anecdotes or jocular footnotes, some well worn. His favorite joke: whenever a stagehand, out of camera range, wipes off his blackboard, Sheen refers to “my little angel.” Sheen has made the “angel” into what the trade calls a running gag.

Helmet of Salvation. One day last June, Fulton Sheen lay stretched out flat on his face before the high altar in the

Church of Saints John and Paul in Rome. In whispers, he prayed for divine grace. The choir sang the Litany of the Saints: “. . . St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John—all ye holy apostles and evangelists, pray for us … St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis —all ye holy monks and hermits, pray for us . . .” Then Cardinal Piazza, poured blessed oil on Fulton Sheen’s greying hair and handed him the crozier. After Solemn Mass, he placed the miter on the new bishop’s head, reminding him that it symbolized a helmet of protection and salvation “that the wearer of it may seem terrible to the opponents of truth and be their steady adversary.” Choir and organ struck up a Te Deum. The boy from Peoria was now a bishop of the Church.

Fulton Sheen’s rise has not delighted all his fellow priests; some find him too theatrical for their taste. But he is on excellent terms with Cardinal Spellman (whom he accompanied on a 43,000-mile tour in 1948), and is held in high regard by the Vatican. A Vatican official said last week: “He is our right arm in the U.S.” The Pope, whom he has known for years, follows his broadcasts. Sheen may never get a see of his own, because he lacks administrative experience, but it is generally believed that he is some day destined to wear a cardinal’s hat.

Since taking over the U.S. branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (the telephone operators, shortening the name, simply say: “Propagation, good morning!”), the bishop has carried a work load that might break a less dedicated or energetic man. In addition to his TV show, his radio show, his Sunday sermons at St. Patrick’s during Lent, his speaking engagements and his religious instruction, he guides the work of the society’s 128 diocesan directors in the U.S., writes or edits all the society’s promotion material, carries on correspondence with many of the society’s 100,000 missionaries (Sheen’s office gets as many as 2,000 letters a day), sees any visiting missionaries in New York, edits two magazines and writes two syndicated columns. One of his columns, “God Love You” (his standard greeting), runs in 25 U.S. Catholic newspapers. It consists largely of items like: “Why not give up cigarettes for a month and use the money for a catechist in Africa? Be Happy, Go Missions!” Sheen has also shown unexpected talent as a magazine editor; his pocket-size Mission is well-printed, dramatically laid out and bristling with snappy or funny picture captions, all of which Sheen writes personally (e.g., under a picture of a wise-looking Negro tot pointing to an open book: “That’s where the King James version is wrong”).

He has a staff of 30 helpers, who work in a small, cramped red-brick house on Manhattan’s East 38th Street (where Sheen lives, with two other priests), but he runs pretty much a one-man show. The society’s receipts are up, but Sheen is not satisfied. Says he with official gloom: “We are not doing as well as the Protestants.”

Bishop’s Day. Sheen’s day begins at 6:15. He spends a “holy hour” of meditation and preparation for Mass at 8, which he reads in his private chapel. He breakfasts frugally (usually orange juice, hot water and a piece of toast). From 9 to 10 he does his writing, from 10 to 1 he answers letters, while his receptionist and secretary keep bringing in a stream of callers. At 1 he lunches in his upstairs apartment, at 1:30 he reads his breviary. Between 2 and 6 he tackles business chores and sees callers in his airy, green-walled office, where he sits in front of a large statue of the Virgin Mary and beside a big air conditioner whose gentle hum vainly competes with the bishop’s vigorous purr. At 6 he dines, usually in his apartment, but rarely eats more than what a friend describes as a “corner” of a steak or chop with some vegetable (Sheen has suffered from ulcers). He sometimes supplements this meager diet with chocolate, for energy. He neither smokes nor drinks, but at a party (he goes to few) he will nurse a small drink so as not to make people uncomfortable. Between 6:30 and 11, more work and study.

For exercise, Sheen plays tennis once a week on the subterranean courts of the River Club, where his partners report that he has a fierce will to win. He also used to play an occasional game of golf. (Once, visiting a friend in Texas, he gamely went riding, but had to eat his dinner that evening standing up; he loved dressing like a cowhand, and called himself “Two-Gun Sheen.”)

He is not paid for his TV appearances, but has a good-sized income from his books, most of which goes to charities (his favorite: a Negro hospital in Mobile, Ala., built largely from his contributions).

A recent caller described the extraordinary effect Sheen has on people: “When one is with Sheen, one has the feeling of being important. Obviously he is a man .who knows how to modulate his voice, raise his eyebrows, use his hands, turn on or off any emotion he wishes. But that does not diminish the quality of honest conviction he has. When you look at him, you think: ‘Here is a man with an answer. He accomplishes ten times as much work as any businessman on Madison Avenue. He’s no cloistered mystic—he’s an executive, a writer, an editor, a public-relations man. And yet he is well organized. He is sure of what he knows. He thinks that I am just as important to God as he. Maybe I am. Maybe that’s the way you do it.’ This feeling is not dispelled by the knowledge that everyone else gets the same treatment. As I left, a large lady swept past me, genuflected, kissed the bishop’s ring, and looked up adoringly. Sheen broke into a great smile with, ‘Ah, mademoiselle, enchante de vous revoir.’ My time was up, but the impression remained. It just seems that everyone is important, everyone feels good.”

Unfinished Business. Holy week will be a busy one for Bishop Sheen. On Tuesday he does two TV shows (one put on film for future use, when Sheen goes to Europe). Wednesday he preaches at St. Peter’s Church on Staten Island, Thursday he addresses the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. On Good Friday, he faces the grueling ordeal of two three-hour services (12-3 in the afternoon; 7-10 in the evening) at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during which he does not sit down once, and twice preaches seven sermons, one for each of the Seven Last Words of Christ. Easter Sunday he will preach at three Masses in St. Patrick’s (10, 12, 1 o’clock), then will rush over to the NBC studios for his broadcast at 2.

To the millions who will listen to Sheen’s words, the meaning of Easter in mid-20th century should be particularly significant. For modern man seems to live in a Good Friday age. Sheen believes that man, his faith in God shaken, has retreated within his own self, but has found there no peace, only shallow and temporary comforts. Disillusioned by a welter of scientific and political cure-alls, he looks for resurrection, but too often he wants it without sacrifice and before death —”promises of salvation without a cross, abandonment without sacrifices, Christ without His nails.” Adds Sheen: “There is no pleasure without pain, no Easter without Good Friday.”

Three years ago, Sheen offered a prayer before the U.S. Congress which all Americans might take to heart: “Gentlemen . . . you ought to pray to God now as never before . . . You ought to pray that God, the sovereign King of nations, who once used Assyria as the rod and staff of His anger, will not now use Russia as the instrument of His justice for the liquidation of a Western World that has forgotten God . . . You ought to pray that our beloved country . . . may one day fulfill its glorious and certain vocation of being the secondary cause by which God will give freedom to the people of Russia and peace and order to all the world. Instead, then, of perfunctorily praying to God and then tabling the prayer as ‘finished business,’ we say to you: Gentlemen, this is the unfinished business—your prayers . . . God love you.”

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