Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: “Televisions First Preacher of Note”

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: “Televisions First Preacher of Note”

Today we live, or try to exist, in the phoney world of televangelists; well some of us do anyway. And yes we have all seen Robert Schuller and been introduced to the new senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral (more about Bob Snr. later).

Then there’s Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggert and other notorious Elmer Gantries who have all passed across our television screens in the past. But did you know, or were you aware, that televisions first preacher of consideration was a handsome Roman Catholic bishop, with the unusual name of Fulton J. Sheen?

Sheen was born in 1895 in Illinois, USA, the eldest of four sons of a working farmer and he must have been close to his mother, for he would adopt her maiden name as his first name.

Sheen’s future vocation as a priest would start as a serving altar boy at his local church. (This has always been the usual road that many other Catholics first visited as an initiation into the church, including James and I.) And later after completing his studies, he would be ordained in 1919 and would later pick up doctorates in Belgium and of course, Rome.

Later Sheen would select the rewarding academic path for success, instead of dull parish work. He would teach philosophy at an accredited Catholic university. Later as a popular academic on campus, he would author some 60 books and be asked to host a weekly Sunday night radio broadcast named The Catholic Hour.

During the 1930s, his popular radio show took to the airwaves. And by the 1950s it was pulling in four million listeners.

About this time he looked at the new medium of television, liked it and the camera liked him. He certainly had the looks for this new medium.

Later, his TV programme Life is Worth Living, would challenge the ratings of amongst others Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. Berle later joked about Sheen by saying:  “He uses old material too.”

Berle seemed to move quite happily in religious circles it seems, as well as the Las Vegas “Coppa Room.”

I was surprised once to see him on TV, joking with Robert Schuller.

(Incidentally Schuller Snr. would have on display at his cathedral, three commissioned statues. One of them being of his old friend and mentor Fulton J. Sheen. But yes, it’s all show business, isn’t it!)

In 1952 Sheen won an Emmy award. On receiving it he joked to the audience: “I feel it is time to pay tribute to my four writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

Another one of his favourite quotes was:  “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.”

And did you know that the actor Martin Sheen (President Bartlett, from the TV drama “The West Wing”) has said on several occasions how he took his stage name from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. But it’s all trivia, isn’t it! But not so in the bishop’s feuding clerical fisticuffs with cardinal Spellman. At times things certainly did turn nasty in the sacristy.

According to the very informative book La Popessa, the authors claimed that both Spellman and Sheen had nothing but open contempt for each other. It probably didn’t help either that the two prickly priests shared the same diocesan house on fashionable Madison Ave. (Spellman was, of course, the archbishop of New York, with Sheen as his auxiliary bishop.)

Later in the 1960s, both men would support opposite ends of the consuming Vietnam War. This would create more battles.

According to others, Sheen noted the cardinal’s sexual predilection with the utmost contempt, but for reasons of his own, would say nothing publicly.

This silence from Sheen and other members of the hierarchy would cost the archdiocese dearly in vast finacial payouts during the sexual scandals and assaults that rocked the American church in recent years, and I would suggest has never fully recovered.

But through all of the personal attacks on him from Spellman, Sheen remained characteristically unruffled: “Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius,” he would only respond about Spellman and his tantrums.

But isn’t it all about naked ambition and perhaps jealousy with these men.

Cardinal Glennon once said through clouds of Cuban cigar smoke: “Ambition in any man is bad enough but in a priest, it can be fatal.”

“Ambition,” remarked another priest who knew and worked with both men, is the “ecclesiastical lust!”

Oh well, so much for the bickering sons of “mother church!”

On one special occasion according to Pascalina again, the feuding of the two Americans became so intense that it got to the pope’s ear. He ordered both men to fly to Rome to deal with the issue of some unpaid financial transaction.

“Sheen owes me a million dollars and refuses to pay up,” Spellman had angrily explained on the phone to Pascalina.

Sheen naturally offered his side of the story to Pacelli, which resulted in the pope remarking to his German housekeeper shortly before the meeting: “I am told that millions watch bishop Sheen each week on television and that he is more popular than Milton Berle, whoever Milton Berle is.”

Later, after admonishing both sulking priests and with Sheen protesting that President Eisenhower was aware of this sensitive matter, pope Pius reached for his white Bakelite telephone to make a transatlantic call to the White House. And of course, he got through to the Oval Office of the most powerful man on earth.

“Mr President, what do we of the Holy Mother Church owe your great and kind Government,” he enquired of a rather bemused Ike, who was then quickly able to diffuse this clerical storm in a chalice! The squabble was over-or was it?

On the way home at the airport Spellman would later shout at the sombre Sheen: “I will get even with you.” And it later seems that he did just that. Isn’t revenge a terrible thing. But then did these men ever profess to be true born-again Christians in the first place?

In 1957 Sheen’s television show was finally wound down. At its peak, it had attracted some 30 million viewers. Now in the rating battle, it was time for people to switch off or watch something else.

Death, when it came, would finally reach out to Fulton J. Sheen in 1979. He had of course long outlived his old rival Francis Spellman. He was 84-years-old.

In 2002, Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization to become a “saint” in the Roman Catholic church was officially opened. He is now referred to as a “Servant of God.”

“Bye now and God loves you,” Fulton J. Sheen’s traditional closing to his TVprogramme.

Before I close this article, one thing needs to be stressed: the term saint, found 61 times in the New Testament, has unfortunately been hijacked by Rome, and given to apply only to “super-duper” Catholics or holier than thou people. Nothing is further from the truth. Only God can make sinners saints, not dead people, decided by a bachelor living in Rome.


La Popessa, by Paul Murphy and Rene Arlington

Fulton J. Sheen, from Wikipedia

And various other anecdotes


The late O.C. Lambert, in response to the following boast from Sheen, challenged him to a public debate, but the bishop quietly declined:  “The Church loves controversy, and loves it for two reasons; because intellectual conflict is informing, and because she is madly in love with rationalism. The great structure of the Church has been built up through controversy” (Catholicism Against Itself, p. 281.)



19 April 2006

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