Pride of Peoria

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“A Paris reporter asked TV-Comedian Milton Berle how he felt about the Bishop Fulton Sheen program which is on a competing channel with his own show. Said Berle: “We’re known as Uncle Miltie and Uncle Fultie now. It doesn’t make any difference if we’re in competition. It’s a pleasure to have him opposite me. After all, we’re both using old material.”

Bishop Sheen would repeat the remark on his show with a smile.  Actually Uncle Miltie was seething.  ”Mr. Television” was having his head handed to him in the ratings by a Catholic Bishop!  Who was this guy?

Born in El Paso, Illinois in 1895,  his family moved to Peoria where Fulton Sheen quickly showed academic promise graduating as Valedictorian at the Spalding institute in 1913.  Ordained a priest in 1919, Father Sheen earned a Doctorate in Philosophy at  the Catholic University of Louvain in 1923.  Teaching philosophy at Catholic University in Washington DC, Father Sheen quickly gained a reputation as an effective and popular teacher.  In 1930 the man and new media met:  Father Sheen began a weekly radio broadcast called the Catholic hour.  By 1950 Sheen had a radio audience of 4,000,000 listeners.

1951 was a year of destiny for Father Sheen.  He was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York and began his TV show, the aptly named Life is Worth Living.  Sheen was a phenomenal success from the beginning as this cover story from Time magazine in 1952 indicates.  Winning an emmy in 1952, Bishop Sheen thanked his writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The show ran until 1957 with an audience of 30,000,000 people.  From 1961-1968 Bishop Sheen had a syndicated show, the Fulton Sheen Program.

Bishop Sheen’s tenure as Bishop of Rochester, commencing in 1966, was tempestuous, and he took early retirement in 1969.  Made an Archbishop of the titular see of  Newport in Wales by Pope Paul VI, Sheen continued writing and speaking until ill health restricted his activities in 1977.  Dying in 1979, since his death the diocese of Peoria has promoted his canonization.

As Thomas Reeves,  a Sheen biographer,  noted here, Fulton Sheen was clearly in his time the greatest Catholic media star.   Why was he so successful?  First, a wonderful voice that he could play with a skill that most organists would envy.  Second, a formidable intellect that allowed him to wrestle successfully with deep philosophical questions and present them  to his audience in a simple, but not simplistic,  manner.  Third, a true “ham” flair for the dramatic.  With his grand gestures, and his dramatic stances he could easily have seemed ridiculous, but for the wit and good humor which accompanied them.

The video above is a good example of Sheen at his best.  A dramatic diatribe against Communism, softened by his humorous inquiry as to time halfway through.  Sheen was always willing to “step out of character” and make his audience feel as if they were behind the scenes of the program with him, a true stroke of genius.  Note that  the substance of Sheen’s critique of communism was proven correct by time.   Communism remained a threat as long as it could attract a hard core of true believers.  Once there were fewer believers in that congealed snake oil known as Marxism in the Soviet Union than on prestigious campuses in the US, the days of the Soviet Union were numbered.

Sheen was a remarkable talent and a remarkable man, and his work deserves close study by all Catholics interested in evangelization.

2 Responses to Pride of Peoria

  • Gerard E. says:

    He wrote the book. Literally. Too far ahead of his time. After his departure from teevee, the lights went out on its use by orthodox Catholics. Of course, coincided with GoGo60s, hootenanny Masses, academics spouting any nonsense they please. Along comes a cloistered nun in Alabama who gets into the cable game around the same time as CNN and ESPN. Wow amazing use of teevee to educate and inspire the faithful. If the Good Bishop were alive he’s use internet, ipods and mp3 as tools. Or stuff still in R&D labs. That same Alabama-based network of course has the good sense to rerun the Good Bishop’s programs. Where they are still fresh and timely. Everything old is new again.

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