Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen 84, whose commanding presence and oratorical brilliance made him a major American television personality as well as a powerful religious spokesman for decades, died last night in New York City.
A spokesman for New York's Roman Catholic Archdiocese said Bishop Sheen, who suffered from heart problems and had a pacemeker installed last year, died at his home on the Upper East Side.
Penetrating, almost hynotic blue eyes, a vibrantly expressive voice, and an uncanny ability to place warmth wit and rhetorical skill at the disposal of his years of scholarship made Bishop Sheen one of the foremost figures on American television in the 1950s when audiences of millions watched him weekly on "Life Is Worth Living."
Acclaimed by members of all faiths almost immediately after it went on the air February 1952, the 30-minute show soared in the ratings and won an "Emmy."
"I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." the bishop said in acknowledging the award.
A longtime veteran of radio, and a former teacher at Catholic University here, Bishop Sheen, clad in clerical robes beneath a scarlet cape, conducted the program without notes and moved about before the television camera with what one critic described as the assurance of a Barrymore.
Despite the strong competition offered on another channel from the so-called "Mr. Television" of the era, Milton Berle, Bishop Sheen held enormous audiences spellbound with discourses on such topics as "Human Passions," "The Training of Children," and "Laws of Marriage."
The bishop, whose initially unsponsored program soon attracted commercial advertising, became an American phenomenon, and no one helped the nation recognize this more than "Uncle Miltie" Berle, who began in a good humored way to refer to his rival as "Uncle Fultie."
He was known for poetic imagery as when he spoke of "the Christ Child's hands holding the reins of the sun and the moon and stars." The author of 60 books, including the best-seller "Peace of Soul," he could also put humor at the service of theology.
As the bishop once told it, Adam pointed out the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel, with the explanation: "Boys, that's where your ma ate us out of house and home."
Although he spiced it with wit, Bishop Sheen took seriously his ministry of the airwaves. "Spiritually," he once said, "radio and television are beautiful examples of the inspired wisdon of the ages.
"Radio," he added." is like the Old Testament, inasmuch as it is hearing of wisdom without seeing; television is like the New Testament because in it the wisdom becomes flesh and dwells among us. What was heard is now seen."
Although Bishop Sheen was fond of saying that his TV show was not a "religious" program, in the narrow sense, it was clear that for millions of viewers and for others who only heard or read about him, he was the living embodiment of the Roman Catholic church. And at the height of his television popularity, in a decade before the ecumenical movement had gathered its current strength, not a few Protestant leaders searched, and vainly, for what they described in private as "a Protestant Fulton Sheen."
Outside his electronic pulpit, Bishop Sheen established a reputation for bringing converts, particularly public figures, into the Catholic church.
Among those said to have converted to Catholicism under his guidance are Henry Ford II, Clare Boothe Luce, Heywood Broun and violinist Fritz Kreisler.
Once conversion that was highly publicized at the time was that of Louis Budenz, former managing editor of the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper.
Bishop Sheen was long known for his militant opposition to Communism, but drew a disinction between the doctrine and its believers.
"The ideology is wicked, the people are good," he once said. "One may hate Communism as an evil system but still love the Communists as creatures made to the image and likeness of God and capable of divine redemption."
Bishop Sheen, the son of a farmer, was born in El Paso, Ill., May 8, 1895. While young, he moved with his family to Peoria, Ill., where he attended Spalding Institute, a secondary school conducted by the Christian Brothers.
After receiving a bachelor of arts degree from St. Viator's College in Kankakee, Ill. (where he was a member of the college debating team) he studied for the priesthood at St. Paul's Seminiary in Minnesota. He was ordained Sept. 20, 1919.
"I have no earlier recollections than a desire to be a priest," he once said.
After earning two degrees in a year of graduate study at Catholic University here, Bishop Sheen obtained a PhD at Louvain in Belgium in 1923, a Doctor of Divinity degree at the University of Rome in 1924, and the prized designation of Agrege in Philosophy at Louvain the following year.
The dissertation he submitted at Louvain in 1925 made him the first American to win the Cardinal Mercier International Prize in Phlosophy.
Titled "God and Intelligence," the thesis was praised by Commonwealth "one of the most important contributions to philosophy in the present century."
Called home in 1926, he was assigned for a year to a poor parish in his home town. "For all intents and purposes," he recalled, "that was to be my life and I was happy about it."
In less thean a year he was assigned to teach philosophy at Catholic University. His bishop told him that the brief posting to Peoria had been a test of his humility and obedience.
"It was a great lesson to me," Bishop Sheen said.
Having established a reputation as an orator while studying in Europe in the early 1920s, Bishop Sheen gained esteem both here and abroad in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
When the Catholic Hour radio broadcasts began in 1930, he was the obvious choice as the speaker to open the programs. He continued to give addresses on that radio program and others for decades, while delivering dozens of other lectures and sermons in person from coast to coast.
After giving up his television program in 1957, Bishop Sheen devoted himself to his role as American head of the worldwide Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He also launched a new Catholic parish on New York's Park Avenue.
In 1966 he was named bishop of Rochester, where efforts made in behalf of blacks and the poor embroiled him in controversy. He quickly became involved in a dispute over the hiring of blacks at the Kodak company.
"Stained glass windows are apt to becloud our vision of poverty and distress," he said during the dispute. Later his decision to offer parish property for use in housing the poor caused such an outcry among parishioners that he was forced to reverse himself.
At Rochester he was in the forefront of church reform, and introduced many ecumencial programs.
In a 1967 sermon he suggested that President Johnson withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam for the sake of reconciliation." As the antiwar movement developed in subsequent years, however, he took no part in it.
In 1969 some observers detected a hint of Vatican displeasure with the controversy he had stirred. His retirement "for reasons of health" was accepted, but Bishop Sheen said his health was "marvelous."
After he retired from the Rochester post, Pope Paul VI named him titular archbishop of Newport, England. (Every bishop or archbishop is required to have a see.)
Since 1969, Bishop Sheen had been lecturing thoughout the country.
Last fall marked the 60th anniversary of his ordination. When Pope John Paul II visited the United States, the pope made a point of greeting Bishop Sheen. In St. Patricks's Cathedral in New York, the two men embraced.