The Unknown Fulton Sheen: Philosopher of Education
For the better part of the twentieth century the name Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was synonymous with American Catholicism. The full impact of Sheen’s career and his influence upon the American Church will never be fully determined—and perhaps never fully appreciated. During his lifetime Sheen authored sixty-six books, published over sixty Catholic pamphlets and booklets, delivered weekly radio broadcasts for over twenty years, wrote countless syndicated articles and columns, edited two magazines, instructed thousands of converts to the Catholic faith, raised over $100 million for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith while serving as its director from 1950-1966, and participated in every session of Vatican II. His influence on the twentieth century American Church can hardly be overstated.
Sheen’s rise to fame in American culture accelerated in 1930 when he agreed to deliver weekly addresses for the newly minted radio broadcast The Catholic Hour. Sheen’s popularity reached its peak in the 1950s when he was offered his own television show, Life is Worth Living, which ran for five seasons from 1952-1957 during prime time. At 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evenings, Bishop Sheen, donned in full episcopal regalia and his trademark purple ferraiolo (episcopal cape), would appear before the cameras and his live audience to deliver an uninterrupted lecture that was exactly twenty-seven minutes and twenty seconds in length, the full duration of his scheduled slot. Over the course of the show’s five seasons Sheen lectured on a wide array of topics including philosophy, science, politics, Communism, psychology, religion, the meaning of life, and topics, as Sheen described, more “ecumenical in nature” that were intended to appeal to “Catholics, Protestants, Jews and all men of good will.” During the height of the show’s popularity Sheen was reaching an estimated 30 million viewers. So beloved was Sheen in the culture during this time that in 1952 he received the Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality.”
Much has been written about Sheen as of late. His popularity in the American Church is seeing a resurgence and many of his books are being republished as interest in his writings and his distinctive style continues to grow. His cause for canonization was officially opened in 2002 and is advancing at a steady pace. Benedict XVI declared Sheen “Venerable Servant of God” in 2012 and on July 6, 2019 Pope Francis formally approved a miracle attributed to Sheen setting the stage for Sheen’s beatification and—God willing—his canonization.