MANY INDUSTRY EXPERTS predicted a short run when Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen first decided to go on television in 1952. Said one skeptical executive, "No single individual can possibly hang on to a TV audience's attention for a full half-hour." But Bishop Sheen, who died Sunday in New York at the age of 84, proved to be a master of television. His only "props" were a vibrant voice, dazzling blue eyes and a scarlet cape that he would swirl with a marvelous flourish; there were no musical interludes, no interviews, not even any notes. But Bishop Sheen's eloquence, scholarship, wit and warmth captivated some 20 million "prime-time" viewers of many faiths.
Though Bishop Sheen was to many the living embodiment of the Roman Catholic Church, his TV talks covered a wide range of human problems and, for many non-Catholics, served to erase some of the misunderstanding and mystery in their perceptions of the faith and its leaders. His show -- it wasn't really a "religious" program in the Sunday-TV sense -- prompted nearly 10,000 letters a week, soared in the ratings, attracted commercial sponsorship (with no fee for the host, but donations to a worldwide charity serving all peoples) and won an Emmy.
Bishop Sheen's message was no cliche-riddled call for morality, nor did he avoid potential controversy. From his electronic pulpit, he championed the importance of civil rights, assistance for the worldl's poor, and religious tolerance. Years after his show ended, Bishop Sheen continued to speak out for help for the poor, observing at one point that "stained glass windows are apt to becloud our visions of poverty and distress."
Showmanship and delivery helped, but another good explanation for the broad popularity of Bishop Sheen's message is contained in this talk about unity, from a 1944 "Catholic Hour" broadcast on NBC Radio: "Outside of the Catholic faith there is a common ground where cooperation between men and a good will is necessary and possible; namely, the preservation of the moral law in the political, economic and international order. For example, we can be united for the defense of property, for equality to all races, colors and classes, for the betterment of working conditions, for freedom of conscience, for a peace based on justice, and for the hundred and one other moral requisites of a social order where men of good will can live short of a risk of martyrdom."