Thursday, December 10th was a day that, for many, might have gone unnoticed as the anniversary of the death of two influential men of the pre-Vatican II Church that carried over into the sixties and even the seventies. One was a Trappist monk whose book was read by millions and, whose philosophy opened the door for so many Catholics to experiment with Eastern mysticism which gave rise to many going over to the the new age movement. The legacy of Brother Thomas Merton may not be as popular in Heaven than it is with his disciples on earth for he seemed to question everything as evident in his storied chronicle "Seven Storey Mountain." After writing this Saint Augustine-like confession of his struggles, debauchery-filled early life and ultimate arrival at the remote Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, success evidently went to his head and his soul strayed again, delving deeper and deeper into his insatiable appetite for Eastern mysticism which did not lead him to ultimate Peace with God as he sought, but left him more troubled by the ever-ending search for truth which we hope he finally found somehow before he left this earth in 1968. Even to this day his writings remain popular with the liberals and modernists who , for some reason, feel they must search the universe for something that they have had all along, something right under their nose...or should we say heart! And that is the truths of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
This was something that another visionary of the Church, during that same time period and who also died eleven years after Merton on the same December date, was able to not only find himself but convey to millions of Americans every week in the simplest way...the way Jesus has always wanted His faith taught. That great illuminary was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who would become an archbishop after his famous "Life is Worth Living" series went off the air. Throughout the fifties, he was the Catholic's "Billy Graham", evangelizing to countless citizens through that new medium that was taking the country by storm - the television set. Who could imagine a Catholic prelate having a regular series each week today on a network program broadcast into millions of homes? Nielsen would turn over in his grave today if that happened. But that was the case back then for his books, television and radio programs, as well as his work as National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith made him one of America's best-known and best-loved Catholic figures of this century. No one was better able to explain the doctrines, dogmas, and catechetical teachings in such easy-to-comprehend terms than this loving orthodox Catholic born in El Paso, Illinois on May 8, 1895. After attending theological seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota he was ordained on September 20, 1919. After being sent to a plethora of universities to further his theological studies from the Catholic University to the Louvain in Belgium he returned to his home diocese of Peoria, Illinois. It is not lost on the faithful that even to this day the Peoria Diocese, under the shepherd Bishop John J Myers remains one of the most loyal and orthodox of Dioceses in the United States.
Bishop Sheen was a faculty member at Catholic University, teaching there for 25 years. During this time he broadcast his first radio program in 1928 from the "new" Radio City Music Hall. In 1930 he was offered a contract by the National Broadcasting Company after its president William Sarnoff had approached the United States Bishops Conference requesting a spokesman to represent the program. Why Sarnoff opted for a religious theme is still anyone's guess, but the fact he did bodes well for his departed soul. Without hesitation the Bishops chose this bright Monsignor Sheen to represent the Church and he began a weekly six p.m. Sunday night national broadcast appropriately called "The Catholic Hour". At first many of the bishops thought it would be rejected and they urged Fulton to be more light-hearted, stay clear of doctrine and tell jokes. It sounds crazy, but even back then the bishops were more concerned with public opinion and being popular and they felt that "The Catholic Hour" broadcasting opposite the popular "Amos n' Andy Show" on CBS, would garner more listeners if it were "funnier." But the listeners evidently were inspired for Sheen received over 7,000 replies to "keep the faith" and continue just the way he was.
In 1951, Pope Pius XII consecrated him titular bishop of Caesarina and auxiliary bishop of New York. This elevation and his popularity helped spur a tremendous outpouring of support to keep his show on the air that by 1952, when television was the "new kid on the block," Bishop Sheen was one of the first approached by rival network Dupont, now defunct, to produce a regular hour-long program on the same lines as the long-standing popular radio series. Thus was born the famed "Life is Worth Living" series. Dupont, however, only broadcast to New York City and other areas where the signal could be picked up, not nationally. To make matters worse the network placed his program opposite the "Father of Television" - Uncle Milty - affectionately known as Milton Berle on NBC and another up-and-coming crooner on CBS by the name of Frank Sinatra. Rather than being buried by these two icons, Bishop Sheen's program actually beat Berle in the ratings. In fact, many believe it was Sinatra himself who brokered a deal to help Berle, himself and, at the same time, launch Sheen into the national limelight for Sheen signed with the ABC network in 1954 with the same show which reached the entire nation. Almost immediately 25 million people on 175 stations across America and a few in Canada were glued to the set each Sunday night for his inspiring "chalk-talk." So this is what the "voice" on "The Catholic Hour" looked like? They liked what they saw and the response was overwhelming with upwards of 25,000 letters pouring in per day! Sheen was taken aback by this response as he would write about his televised evangelizing that he could "address a greater audience in half an hour than Paul in all the years of his missionary life." It was overwhelming and for a lesser man the fame would have gone to his head, but Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was no ordinary man. He did not need to search for Truth as Merton had struggled with, for he knew the Truth and he knew it had set him free and it would set millions free and so he continued with his powerful series reaching, at one time, over thirty million homes before Nielsen Ratings were even a concept. To reveal just a bit of his humility and humor, he once remarked, "The Lord once used an ass to ride into Jerusalem. Now he uses an ass on TV." Well this self-proclaimed "donkey" prelate muled his way into the hearts of millions until the mid-sixties when his excellent series gave way to the evil one's wave of new programming that has changed television from an informative, educational and entertaining medium to the "tabernacle of satan."
In 1966 he was appointed Archbishop of Rochester, New York where he remained in residence until his retirement three years later at the age of 74. It's interesting that his orthodoxy did not rub off on the current bishop of Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark who has had his run-ins with conservatives, espousing many liberal causes that have finally backfired with the scandalous actions of one of his priests Father James Callan, suspended because he performed homosexual weddings and allowed women to concelebrate the Mass with him. We pray Bishop Clark and Fr. Callan will look to the inspiration of the former Rochester shepherd Archbishop Sheen and learn from his humility and ultimate trust in God's Church, and strive to uphold the traditions as Sheen did.
With all the millions of dollars we hear being bandied about for movie stars and sports stars in 1998, what Bishop Sheen received was a pittance compared to today, but, unlike the icons of today, he did not keep one penny for himself. He was paid an astonishing $16,500. per program and the entire amount was sent to the Propagation for the Faith each week. He was totally satisfied with his regular stipend. In fact from 1950 to 1966 he raised over 200 million dollars that was distributed by the Propagation for the Faith, mostly overseas for third world countries. He was a crusader for the poor and down-trodden, espousing what Christ said in the Gospel long before Pope John Paul II came along to carry on the cause. As a matter of fact, the two greatest men of this century have to be our current Holy Father and Bishop Sheen. We're not talking about just for Catholics, but for the world. No two men have had a greater impact on upholding the dignity of man than these two "saints" of the twentieth century. Though John Paul II grew up with communism, Bishop Sheen was condemning it as early as 1930 when Karol Wojtyla was just entering high school. Sheen, a voracious reader of everything, was a constant crusader against the evils of communism, but, unlike the controversial Senator Joseph McCarthy, he never maligned a single person, only their philosophy. Many believe he did more to wake America up to the dangers of communism than any politician. In fact, the communist party and fifth-columnists in this country marked him as their chief antagonist and it is said attempts were made on his life, but the angels protected him and he retired late in life before succumbing on December 10, 1979 after a full life of service to God. Only God knows how many souls have been saved through the silver-tongued efforts and straight-forward logic imbued by this marvelous man. This editor knows that Bishop Sheen played an integral role in the life of yours truly for it kept the truths of the faith first and foremost in our minds and hearts. Unlike Merton and his zen methods, there was no need to go searching for Truth for Bishop Sheen had uncovered the "motherlode" for us and illustrated every week the feeling of "Eureka" in our souls. Yes, for nineteen plus years this man has been sorely missed for he was truly a hero who reached humanity through humility, heart, homily and humor!