The First Great Televangelist

If you’ve ever been to America on holiday, turned on the television and done some channel hopping you can’t avoid the televangelists. The hot-Protestant preachers usually have big mouths, big budgets, big Bibles and big bellies.

Making the Faith Come Alive

It might seem like they have a monopoly on religious broadcasting, but the pioneer of American religious broadcasting was not a Protestant hot gospeller, but a devout Catholic Archbishop.

May 8th of this year was the one hundred-eighth birthday of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He was born in the Midwestern state of Illinois in 1895 and was ordained in 1919. By 1939 Fulton Sheen had already become a famous preacher and had founded The Catholic Hour radio broadcast on NBC. The program ran for twenty two years. In 1940 he preached on the first televised religious service and for sixteen years from 1950 he served as the National Director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. From 1951 to 1957 he hosted the Emmy award winning TV show, Life is Worth Living. In addition to his broadcasting work he wrote over sixty books and dozens of articles. Two of his books became national best sellers. He served on the Vatican II Commission on Missions and was appointed a bishop by Pope Paul VI in 1966.

Fulton Sheen was an amazingly gifted communicator. At the very beginning of the media age he realized that the faith needs to be conveyed through books, articles, leaflets, radio and television shows. He was able to use his God-given gifts in a supernatural way to reach millions. Fulton Sheen’s gift was in making the profound truths of the Catholic faith come alive for ordinary listeners. With a strong love for people, Archbishop Sheen was able to tell story after story of real life faith in action. He believed that the Catholic faith was not just a set of doctrines to be believed or a set of traditions to be kept. Instead, the Catholic faith was vital for a happy, successful and productive life. Fulton Sheen had an abiding and unshakable faith in God’s love and the practicality of the faith. He also had a real passion for God and for other people.

Fulton Sheen was not a dumb American priest from hicksville. He was highly intelligent and very educated. He held a Ph.D. from the University of Louvain in Belgium. He attended the Sorbonne in Paris and was the first American to receive the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy. He was professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America for nearly twenty five years. But Fulton Sheen was able to communicate the faith successfully because he not only talked, he listened. He knew how ordinary people spoke. He knew what their worries and fears were. He used their language to talk about the faith. He used their lives to show God’s love at work. He didn’t expect people to come up to his educational or cultural level. He went down to theirs, and he did so in genuine humility, humor and good will. He was not condescending.

Allies Across the Pond

The secret of Fulton Sheen’s success as an evangelist is similar to that of another great Christian communicator, C.S.Lewis. Lewis and Sheen are almost exact contemporaries. Both were highly educated. Both were very gifted in speaking to ordinary people. Lewis became famous through his radio talks during World War II, and through his Screwtape Letters and Chronicles of Narnia. All his books, broadcasts, articles and talks were filled with his passion to communicate the gospel to a needy world. Fulton Sheen was the same. From the other side of the Atlantic he issued a flood of articles, radio programs, TV shows and books to help millions understand their faith. Fulton Sheen knew that everybody loves a story and he loved to tell stories about how people, relationships, families and communities were transformed by the power of Christ’s love.

Now as we are turning the corner into the twenty first century and the third millennium of the Christian age, the world needs the Christian gospel as never before. Cynicism, doubt and despair seem about to overwhelm us. People are lost in the darkness of unbelief, depression, fear and distrust. Pope John Paul II calls each one of us to be involved in the New Evangelization. What does this mean? It means each one of us — not just priests, monks and nuns — must give witness to our faith. If we have communication gifts as speakers or writers we must work hard to use those gifts in the media.

This Means You, Too!

This is the task not only of media people. Everyone needs to speak boldly about what Jesus Christ means to them. Examples like Fulton Sheen show us the way to spread the gospel effectively. There are three principles from his life from which all of us can learn: First, really believe that God is alive, that he cares and that he answers prayer. Second, speak naturally about what God has done for you. People want to believe and they want to hear how faith works so they can see the way. Third, stay in touch with God so it is his message you are spreading and not just your own.

Those who have been influenced by Archbishop Fulton Sheen are working for his beatification and eventual canonization. Martin Shaw is the director of the Fulton Sheen Foundation here in Britain. Martin is a good example of someone who is simply getting on with the job. He told me quite simply how Fulton Sheen’s writings had helped kick start his spiritual life and that in turn has encouraged me. You can learn more about the cause and about Fulton Sheen by writing to Martin at 43 Westminster Palace Gardens, Artillery Row, London, SW1P 1PR.

In the meantime, take an example from Fulton Sheen. Get involved in the New Evangelization. Ask God for courage to talk about your faith. There is one final thing: Maybe you have no faith to talk about. Maybe God has never touched your life in a real way. It is never too late. God wants to be a real and powerful presence in all our lives. There is only one thing you have to do: Ask.

Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic freelance writer published regularly in the Catholic Press in England. He has also been featured in Our Sunday Visitor, and National Catholic Register and is the author of eight books on conversion, apologetics and Benedictine spirituality.

Dwight's first book, a collection of English conversion stories, is available from Coming Home Network. His latest book is Adventures in Orthodoxy.

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Brought up as an Evangelical in the USA, Fr. Dwight Longenecker earned a degree in Speech and English before studying theology at Oxford University. He served as a minister in the Church of England, and in 1995 was received into the Catholic Church with his wife and family. The author of over twenty books on Catholic faith and culture including his most recent title, Immortal Combat, Fr Longenecker is also an award winning blogger, podcaster and journalist. He is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision for married former Protestant ministers, Fr Longenecker and his wife Alison have four grown up children.

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