Bishop Fulton J. Sheen – “Life is Worth Living”

Fulton J. Sheen was an American bishop (later archbishop) of the Catholic Church known for his preaching and especially his work on television and radio. Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, IL in 1919, Sheen quickly became a renowned theologian, earning the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy. He pursued advanced study in philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. After which he returned to teach theology and philosophy at the Catholic University of America (Wash. D.C.) as well as acting as a parish priest before being appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York in 1951. He held this position until 1966.

From 1930 to 1950, Father (then Monsignor) Sheen’s weekly radio talks on The Catholic Hour presented Catholic teaching in a way that had never been done before. Drawing from the deep well of his faith and scholarship, Professor Sheen addressed topics ranging from devotion to the Blessed Mother to the dangers of Communism. Rooted in his thorough knowledge of the philosophical thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, he preached the Gospel and showed how it applies to personal moral decisions and the great social issues of the time. The busy professor not only kept up his full teaching and radio schedule, he also wrote numerous books. He published 34 books during his 23-year teaching career at Catholic University and another 32 after he left the University. Many of his other talks and sermons were published as pamphlets. He also was a syndicated columnist in the secular press. Sheen was the voice of reason who spoke against those conflicting ideologies which were hostile to religious faith and democracy.

On February 12, 1952, Sheen began a weekly television program on the DuMont Television Network titled Life Is Worth Living. The show, scheduled in a prime time slot on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. competed against Uncle Miltie – Texaco Star Theatre, The Milton Berle Show. Sheen’s show ran on Dumont until April 1955 when Dumont ceased its operations. Thereafter, the show was carried on ABC network. The program consisted of the unpaid Sheen, appearing in a long cassock, a gold cross and chain on his chest, a long purple cape and a skull cap, simply speaking in front of a live audience without a script or cue cards. The half-hour program consisted of a one-minute commercial for Admiral, followed by a 28-minute talk delivered without notes or teleprompter by the bishop, ended with a two-minute peroration and the sign-off “God love you,” followed by another one-minute commercial for Admiral. This formula proved to be a success.

Sheen’s talks were never straight appeals for loyalty to the Catholic Church, but universal in nature, designed to appeal to people of any faith. The themes of his show although grounded in Catholic principles, were simply a combination of Christian ethics, American ideals, and common sense (An Analysis of the Themes of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s TV Talks, James C. Palmer, Jr., The Southern Speech Journal, Vol. 30, Issue 3, p. 223, 1965) The number of stations carrying Life Is Worth Living jumped from three to fifteen in less than two months. There was fan mail that flowed in at a rate of 8,500 letters per week. Life Is Worth Living held the distinction of being aired on more stations (169) than any other regularly scheduled DuMont program, and is believed to have been the most widely viewed religious series in the history of television.

The charismatic Sheen became one of early television’s most unlikely stars, winning an Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality” in 1952, defeating Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey. During his acceptance speech he happily borrowed Berle’s line, crediting his four writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – for his success. Time magazine carried his picture on its front cover. One of his best-remembered presentations came in February 1953, when he forcefully denounced the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Sheen gave a dramatic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, substituting the names of prominent Soviet leaders Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Andrey Vyshinsky for the original Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus. He concluded by saying, “Stalin must one day meet his judgment.” The dictator suffered a stroke a few days later and died within a week.

Sheen’s show ran until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. In 1958, Sheen became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, serving for eight years before being appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, on October 26, 1966. He also hosted a nationally syndicated series, The Fulton Sheen Program, from 1961 to 1968 (first in black and white and then in color). The format of this series was essentially the same as Life Is Worth Living. Archbishop Sheen died in Manhattan at age 84 in 1979, and shortly after his body was entombed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.