Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Catholic Media’s Greatest Star


By Thomas Reeves

When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra.

As 1999 ended, there was speculation about who had been the greatest, most popular, most significant, or most influential Catholic of the preceding 100 years. When it came to the world, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa scored high on virtually every list. In the United States, names such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Al Smith, and John F. Kennedy received considerable attention. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received little notice.

It is my contention that Sheen was the most influential Catholic of 20th-century America. Indeed, it could be argued that his impact was far superior to others receiving more attention in polls and in the media.

In the first place, he was the most popular public speaker in the Church, and arguably the best. Millions listened to his Catholic Hour radio programs from 1928 to 1952. Millions also received printed copies of these talks. In 1949, Gladys Baker, a noted journalist, observed that Sheen was “the name priest in America.” She added, “By members of all faiths, Monsignor Sheen is conceded to be the most electric orator of our times.”

When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. A television critic exclaimed, “Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is…is sensational.” In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, winning over media giants Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After winning, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. The journalist James Conniff stated, “No Catholic bishop has burst on the world with such power as Sheen wields since long before the Protestant Reformation.” By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.

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