By Barbara Kralis
©Barbara Kralis 2004
It was the fall of 1951. He wore a black cassock with violet 'abito piano' or piping. The wide violet 'sincture' was wrapped at the waist. A beautiful violet wool 'cappa magna' over his cassock, similar to that of a toreador, flowed from his shoulders. The violet silk zucchetto was on the back of his head.
The man was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of New York. He was ready to make television history as no other religious man has before or since.
On the bishop's chest was an impressive gold 'pectoral' cross. He bowed deeply to the crowd and said, "Thank you for allowing me into your home."
Bishop Sheen was beginning yet another successful role. He was making the transition from radio to television.
A television star was born.
The name of his new television show would be, "Life is Worth Living." It would soon win an Emmy Award, beating the very popular Milton Berle. In fact, the rating showed the flamboyant Catholic preacher was more popular than romantic crooner Frank Sinatra.
This new television medium was to make Bishop Sheen the most famous preacher of the twentieth century, according to the Word Book Encyclopedia.
By 1956, the bishop was appearing on 123 ABC-TV stations and 300 radio stations around the country. It was estimated that he reached 30 million people a week.
Every Tuesday evening, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time, the Bishop, with only a blackboard for a prop, would for the next 27 minutes eloquently discuss his topic.
His topics were always straight from real life. He spoke of contracepting, of sodomy, of fornication, of adultery. His audiences were held spellbound.
He did this with humor but without any nudity, without filthy language, without compromising the Catholic faith.
Revealed truth, when taught without fear, attracts and convinces multitudes because it is a sacred gift, because it is plain and reasonable. Truth needs no gimmicks, unless you call the simple blackboard a gimmick.
Bishop Sheen always chalked out words and diagrams onto a large blackboard framed on a wood stand. When the blackboard was filled, the bishop would walk to the other side of the stage set and continue his catechesis. A few moments later, he would return to the blackboard "that had been wiped clean by my Angel," he quipped each week.
The Admiral Corporation rather than the Catholic Church sponsored the program. He had no difficulty finding commercial sponsors for his religious message.
The resonant tones of his voice from our black and white television screens enticed us all each Tuesday. Catholic and non-Catholic, it did not matter. In fact, the bishop said he received more mail from non-Catholics than from Catholics.
Stars of religious television programs acknowledged that Bishop Sheen provided the ideal role model for televangelists still today.
One time during his program, he told his listeners he liked chocolate chip cookies. By mid-week, he and his staff could barely fit into the studio. People across America sent thousands of boxes of chocolate chip cookies. He was America's beloved preacher.
Fifty years later, his lectures, addresses and witty anecdotes are more relevant, and more needed, than ever before. Truth is timeless. Sheen was a prophet for our time. He was a great evangelizer, long before the term became popular.
Archbishop Sheen often spoke at many world religious events as well as on the street corners of New York.
Just as Jesus did himself, Sheen taught through images, stories and parables. His gift of oratory and communication has, sadly, not been seen nor heard since.
Cardinal Mercier of Louvain taught Sheen to always keep current and know what the world is thinking, reading and listening to. In other words, know your audience.
Sheen always believed that at the end of a lecture one must tear up their notes.
"There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition of the same course the following year."
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen died in l979 at the age of 84.
In 1999, the late John Cardinal O'Connor of the Archdiocese of New York approved the ...
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