A superb showman, he appeared on television before a live audience on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. in full episcopal regalia: a long purple cape over a black cassock, and on his chest a gleaming gold cross. Of medium height and slender build, he had graying wavy hair, deep-set, penetrating eyes with a hypnotic gaze, and the look of an ascetic – albeit a sumptuously garbed ascetic. His rich, cultivated voice caressed, compelled. Looking right at the camera, with graceful arm gestures and quick changes of facial expression he spoke of good and evil, marriage problems, prayer as a dialogue, the holy spirit, the commandments, sin and penance, the sacraments, but in such a way as to appeal not just to Catholics but to a nationwide audience. The set was a study with a desk, chairs, and in the background, shelves of books, perhaps a reminder of his solid Catholic scholarship. At times he drew simple diagrams or wrote significant phrases on a blackboard, his only prop; if the blackboard was full, an unseen stagehand whom he called his “angel” would erase it, so it could receive more simple diagrams and significant phrases.
|Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Spiritual Centre|
The bishop’s stage presence and sensitivity to the audience’s mood were remarkable, and he was, to use a newly current word of the time, supremely telegenic. Competing with comedian Milton Berle, “Mr. Television,” whose program was on at the same time as his, the bishop’s program “Life Is Worth Living” had an audience of some thirty million a week. In 1952 his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine – itself a consecration – and the magazine proclaimed him “perhaps the most famous preacher in the U.S., certainly America’s best-known Roman Catholic priest, and the newest star of U.S. television.”
Such were the unexpected fame and success of the Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, in the 1950s. The number of stations carrying his program, which was filmed at the Adelphi Theater on West 54th Street in New York, went from three to fifteen in less than two months. The demand for tickets for the show was too overwhelming to be met, and fan mail came pouring in at the rate of 8,500 letters a week. For instance:
A Massachusetts nurse: “I looked to my minister for advice, but because the matter was so personal I resisted asking him outright. Therefore I am writing to you….”
A South Dakota housewife: “I feel worried….”
A Philadelphia professional woman: “Last year it was made clear to me that my husband had an affair with a married woman…. Please use some theme which you think might bear on the remorse and regret which will follow if homes are wrecked by such relationships.”
He had a good sense of humor, used jokes and memorable one-liners:
“I see you’ve come to have your faith lifted.”
“An atheist is a man without visible means of support.”
“Long time no Sheen.”
Once, imitating his friendly rival Milton Berle, known to viewers as “Uncle Miltie,” he began, “Good evening, this is Uncle Fultie.” And he gave credit to his writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though inspirational, he was fun as well.
|Uncle Miltie and friends.|
“Hearing nuns’ confessions,” he confessed, “is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” “The big print giveth,” he observed, “and the fine print taketh away.” And perhaps his Irish American background inspired the comment, “Baloney is flattery laid on so thick it cannot be true, and blarney is flattery so thin we love it.” Being famous and acclaimed, he probably got a good bit of both.
Born in 1895 to a farming family near Peoria, Illinois, he was Irish on both sides, showed an early preference for books over farm work, and was ordained a priest in 1919. Subsequently he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and claimed to have earned another doctorate in Rome, though this has been challenged; he may have invented it so as to speed up his advancement. Be that as it may, he had a solid foundation in Catholic philosophy and theology before beginning his career in media with a weekly radio broadcast in 1930. Time magazine in 1946 referred to him as “the golden-voiced Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, U.S. Catholicism’s famed proselytizer,” but his real career and fame began in 1952, when Sheen, lately made a bishop, began his program “Life Is Worth Living” on television, the medium in which his splendor of presence could at last be fully conveyed to an audience. And conveyed it was, magnificently, to millions. Soon hailed as the first televangelist, he was unpaid, and the commercials were kept to a minimum.
Especially memorable was a program in February 1953 when Sheen, a fierce anti-Communist but no follower of Senator Joe McCarthy, denounced Stalin’s regime in Russia and gave a reading of the burial scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, substituting the names of the most prominent Soviet leaders, with Stalin as the murdered Caesar. “Stalin must one day meet his judgment,” he concluded. Stalin suffered a stroke a few days later and died on March 5, 1953.
It is no surprise, then, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover admired Sheen and kept a file on him, since he liked to keep track of friends as well as enemies. On June 12, 1953, at Hoover’s invitation, the man who some thought had foretold the death of the villainous Stalin addressed the graduation exercises of the FBI National Academy in Washington, following which J. Edgar wrote him to say that his address was one of the most inspirational talks he had ever heard. And from the FBI files on the bishop we can glean an array of interesting tidbits:
· Sheen likes ice cream and angel food cake.
· He likes to play tennis and wears a white scarf and white flannel trousers when doing so.
· At a dinner for a group of men, when asked if he got all he wanted for Christmas, he said no, he wanted some royal blue silk pajamas. The next day he received twenty pairs of the same, each of the men thinking he was acting alone.
· For years he drove a light cream-colored convertible, wearing a camel hair coat, a white scarf, and dark glasses while driving, so as to avoid being recognized. (His announced appearances were always mobbed by fans.) If stopped by a motorcycle cop for speeding, he used all his powers of oratory to avoid a ticket.
· He lives simply in New York, rising at 6:00 a.m., attends a private Mass, isn’t at his desk before nine.
As these items suggest, Sheen didn’t live the life of a saint; he dressed fashionably, lived luxuriously, and enjoyed the attention he got in the media and the applause of adoring crowds. Humility was not his thing.
Even so, he brought Catholicism into mainstream television and was responsible for some remarkable conversions: author and Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, Henry Ford II of the automobile dynasty, violinist Fritz Kreisler and his wife, actress Virginia Mayo, and ex-Communist turned anti-Communist Louis F. Budenz, whose conversion must have especially delighted him.
|Less elegant than Sheen, but more|
The bishop was said to be at times difficult, if his authority was challenged. Why his TV program ended in October 1957, when he was at the height of his television fame, was at the time something of a mystery. It seems that he tangled with another man who could also be difficult, if challenged: his superior, Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of New York. (For more on Spellman, see post #136.) In 1950 Sheen had become director of the New York-based Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and in 1957 he and Spellman engaged in a bitter feud. When Spellman demanded that the Society pay his archdiocese millions for a large quantity of powdered milk that Spellman had given the Society to distribute to the poor, Sheen flat-out refused.
When two colossal egos, one a powerful cardinal archbishop and the other a beloved and charismatic television star, collide, clerical sparks fly. Spellman took the issue all the way to Pope Pius XII, a personal friend, and a private audience resulted where he and Sheen pleaded their respective cases. To get the facts straight, the Pope phoned President Eisenhower, who confirmed Sheen’s account that the U.S. government had given the food to the Church free of charge. His Holiness then sided gently with Sheen, urging reconciliation and dismissing them while giving both men his blessing. Infuriated, the Cardinal reportedly told Sheen afterward, “I will get even with you. It may take six months or ten years, but everyone will know what you’re like.” Spellman quickly got Sheen’s television program canceled and saw to it that his speaking invitations declined and his fund-raising became more difficult. Sheen was, in effect, hounded out of the archdiocese
That was not the end of Fulton J. Sheen. He hosted another TV series in the 1960s, wrote numerous books, and became Bishop of Rochester in 1966, and when, at age 74, he resigned the position in 1969, he was made Archbishop of the Titutular See of Newport, Wales, a ceremonial post that let him devote his time to writing. In 1977 he underwent surgeries that weakened him and made preaching difficult, and two years later he died of heart disease in New York and was interred in the white marble crypt of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, in close proximity to his nemesis, Cardinal Spellman. Reruns of his programs are still aired, his talks are available on DVDs, and a museum bearing his name houses a collection of his personal items in Peoria, Illinois, where he was first ordained and said his first Mass. In 2002 Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria launched a campaign for his canonization.
But that is still not the end of the story. In 2010 the canonization campaign was suspended, owing to a disagreement between the Archdiocese of New York, which possesses Sheen’s remains, and the Diocese of Peoria, which wants the remains returned to Peoria, so they can be examined and relics secured, as required prior to beatification and canonization. In 2012 the Vatican announced that it had recognized Sheen’s life as one of “heroic virtue,” a significant step toward canonization; as a consequence, Sheen is now to be referred to as a “Venerable Servant of God.” For the canonization process to continue, two miracles are necessary, and one was soon forthcoming: a stillborn infant who, thanks to Sheen’s prayers, is said to have lived to be healthy.
Meanwhile the fight continues. Peoria has drawn up blueprints for an elaborate shrine in its cathedral to house the tomb, but Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York refuses to part with the body, citing the wishes of Sheen’s family and Sheen himself, who spent only a few years in Peoria and many in New York, a city that he loved. Also, Sheen is a personal hero for Dolan, who knew the TV programs as a young boy. He has offered Peoria some bone fragments and other relics from the tomb, but not even a limb or two, much less the body itself. So last September Bishop Jenky announced “with immense sadness” that the campaign had been suspended yet again. There is lamentation in Peoria, but some Catholic observers applaud the delay, saying that canonization should not be rushed, that the old fifty-year rule should be restored, allowing time for a cult to grow organically and prove itself genuine or, in some cases, time for it to die out. And so matters stand to date. Meanwhile the archbishop has been inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame, an award now proudly displayed in … Peoria.
|Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who just can't let go.|
|Reliquary with a thorn |
from Christ's crown of
thorns, in the Archbishop's
Museum in Cologne.
Perhaps this fixation achieved the ultimate in the worship of the Holy Prepuce, which various churches in Europe have claimed to possess in the past, some even insisting it was a gift from Charlemagne. And if Jesus' foreskin is preserved and enshrined, why not some shorn locks (assuming he ever saw a barber) or some nail clippings? Where indeed does it end? (Incidentally, I have a number of Catholic friends quite firm in their faith, none of whom is concerned about relics.)
And the very idea of Sheen’s body being, as a compromise, divided between Peoria and New York – poor provincial Peoria, so often derided as the quintessential small Midwestern town, and huge, exciting, cosmopolitan New York – the very idea of it shocks and amuses and perplexes me.
|Reliquary with the tooth of Saint Apollonia,|
in the cathedral of Porto, Portugal.
But there is a long history of dividing up sanctified remains. Saint Catherine of Siena’s body is enshrined in Rome, but Siena, allegedly after a bit of smuggling abetted by a miracle, has her head. (Legend has it that the people of Siena tried to sneak the head out of Rome in a bag. When the Roman guards inspected the bag, they found only rose petals, but back in Siena the head reappeared.) And Saint Francis Xavier’s body is in Goa, India, but his right forearm is enshrined in a reliquary in Rome.
Be that as it may, in the case of the Venerable Sheen I wish both dioceses well and hope the process of canonization can continue, so I can go on being shocked and mystified and fascinated, and the deceased archbishop can be properly and definitively entombed somewhere and venerated, bringing comfort and joy to many, as his presence on television did in life.
* * * *
Sheen was not without critics in his own time. He was called glib and superficial, an exponent of the “feel-good religion” of the time. “Americans like to feel good about themselves,” a young Russian acquaintance once said to me with a mischievous smirk, and I can’t deny the truth of his statement. We are an irrepressibly and incurably optimistic race, as witnessed by President Reagan’s cheery message, “It’s morning in America.” There is a whole industry devoted to making Americans feel good about themselves, and to make sure they do, there’s another industry devoted to their self-improvement. In 1923 the French psychologist Émile Coué toured the U.S., teaching audiences to recite, mantra-like, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” In 1936 Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was published and soon became a huge best seller still selling today, telling Americans that one could change how other people behave toward you by changing how you behave toward them. “Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude,” he asserted. To which he added, “Most of us have far more courage than we ever dreamed we possessed.” It cannot be denied that Sheen’s television program, “Life Is Worth Living,” for all its solid foundation in Catholic thinking, partook of this tradition. Which needn’t mean that it was glib and superficial, though it was certainly of its time.
Also of its time and partaking of that tradition was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking: A Practical Guide to Mastering the Problems of Everyday Living, published in 1952, whose introduction announced that “you do not need to be defeated by anything, that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never ceasing flow of energy.” The book stayed on the best seller list for 186 weeks, sold 5 million copies, and was translated into 15 languages.
|No glamor, just a friendly smile.|
Born in Ohio in 1898 and ordained a Methodist minister in 1922, ten years later Peale switched to the Reformed Church in America so he could become pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church at 272 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of West 29th Street in Manhattan. (Protestants change sects as easily as they change a hat or a suit of clothes; for Catholics it’s a bit more complicated.) Walking down Fifth Avenue, many a time I passed the church’s marble façade, Romanesque with a dash of Gothic, and saw the reverend’s name emblazoned on a plaque, until one day his name was replaced by another. That would have been in 1984, when he ended his 52-year tenure as pastor, during which the membership grew from 600 to over 5,000, and he became one of the city’s most renowned preachers. He was also on radio for 54 years and later transitioned to television.
Here are some examples of Peale’s “applied religion”:
· Anybody can do just about anything with himself that he really wants to and makes up his mind to do.
· Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow.
· Don’t walk around with the world on your shoulders.
· Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. So believe the answer will come. It will.
· Start each day by affirming peaceful, contented and happy attitudes and your days will tend to be pleasant and successful.
· Practice happy thinking every day. Cultivate the merry heart, develop the happiness habit, and life will become a continual feast.
· It’s always too early to quit.
· Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others.
For Peale, religion and psychology were fused to the point that you could hardly tell one from the other. His followers lapped it up, but not everyone was impressed. When I saw the 1964 film One Man’s Way, Hollywood’s version of his life to date, and his name was pronounced early in the story, there were groans throughout the theater; most of the audience had come for the other film being shown and had no idea what – or who – this one was about.
But there were serious criticisms of his book as well. Mental health experts didn’t hesitate to label him a con man and a fraud. The book was full of vague references to a “famous psychologist,” a “practicing physician,” and countless others, none of them identified. Critics called his understanding of the mind inaccurate, superficial, simplistic, false, and said his reliance on self-hypnosis was potentially dangerous. For him, they asserted, such unpleasant phenomena as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, and greed don’t really exist; they are simply trivial mental processes that will evaporate if one’s thoughts become more cheerful. And on a lighter note, when Adlai Stevenson, running for the presidency in 1956, was told that Peale had endorsed the incumbent, Eisenhower, Stevenson replied, “Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”
These criticisms evidently stunned Peale, who later said he even considered resigning his post at the Marble Collegiate Church. What kept him there was the realization that, whatever his critics said, he was sure he was helping millions. On occasion he voiced a political opinion, as when he opposed the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, insisting that Kennedy would serve the interests of the Catholic Church before those of the United States. This statement provoked condemnations by Harry Truman, the Board of Rabbis, and the leading Protestant theologians of the day, following which Peale seems to have gone into hiding and once again threatened to – but did not – resign from his church. (It’s always too early to quit.) After that he refrained from partisan political pronouncements. But did he ever read Dale Carnegie’s book?
When Richard Nixon was in the White House, Peale was persona most grata there and even officiated at the wedding of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. During the Watergate crisis that forced Nixon from office, he continued to frequent the White House, explaining that “Christ didn’t shy away from people in trouble.” One wonders if he told the besieged President to cultivate a merry heart, or advised him that it was always too early to quit.
Presidents simply couldn’t ignore the man, whether living or dead. In 1983 President Reagan awarded Peale the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., for his contributions to the field of theology (which must have been news to Protestant theologians of the time). And when Peale departed this earth in 1993 (scattering sunshine, one hopes), President Bill Clinton said that Peale’s name would always be associated “with the wondrously American values of optimism and service.” As regards optimism, who could argue?
The 1950s are often dismissed as dull and conformist, when compared with the raging ’60s, but for spiritual sustenance they offered a range of options. For those not attuned to the splendor of Bishop Sheen’s Catholicism or the merry optimism of Dr. Peale’s Protestantism, there was always Billy Graham.
|Square-jawed, and as clean-cut as they come.|
A memorable Wednesday: At 1:00 a.m. I was wakened by a loud crash in the apartment. My flashlight revealed nothing out of order in the bedroom, but when I looked into the middle room I saw chaos. Four bookshelves attached to the wall had come loose and fallen down, heaping my partner Bob’s books on my computer, Bob’s wheelchair, and the floor. I have never seen such devastation in the apartment. Had I been sitting at my computer, I might well have received a concussion from the falling shelves. The books have now been removed to a bunch of cartons, and I shall see about restoring the shelves, which I installed when we moved in a mere 44 years ago. Bob has vowed to get rid of many books, which is music to my ears, since there are more shelves attached to a longer wall behind the computer, likewise installed 44 years ago. Nothing lasts forever.
Though neither of us had a full night’s sleep, I went to the Union Square greenmarket as usual, and there encountered the following:
· A woman whose T-shirt proclaimed, GOD BELONGS IN MY CITY.
· Little kids four feet tall with clipboards, making notes on what they experienced in the market.
· A bearded drummer sitting shrouded in a long plastic bag, beating obsessively on a cardboard box and being photographed by tourists.
· An Asian couple, each with a tiny infant suspended on their chest.
· A six foot plus young black man being towed on a skateboard by his girlfriend.
· An Asian and a Caucasian woman, surprised to see each other there and flashing smiles and greeting each other rapturously.
· An older black woman in radiant blue, walking slowly, inch by inch, with a cane.
· Little kids staring in wonder at pumpkins almost as big as they were.
· A vendor at my organic bread stand whose T-shirt insisted, “Tibet sera libre.”
· And a vast array of apples (maybe fifteen kinds), peaches, plums, root vegetables, a dozen kinds of winter squash, celeriac (“The frog prince of vegetables”), broccoli, kale, bison meat, cheeses, bread, preserves – you name it.
For a taste of the energy and diversity of New York, you can’t do better than the Union Square greenmarket.
Coming soon: Wall Street, greed, and addiction. And when a former president of the New York Stock Exchange pleaded guilty to grand larceny, what one offense did his colleagues find unforgivable?
© 2014 Clifford Browder