Saturday, December 12, 2009

Remembrance, and Maybe Sainthood, for Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

Published: December 9, 2009

To a Catholic boy like Tim Dolan, growing up in the heartland when Protestant neighbors still made casual jokes about the “papists” next door, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen rode into town in the 1950s on the new main street of the United States, the television set, like a true-blue American hero.

“He showed the broad American public that the truths of our faith were consonant with the highest values of the society: patriotism, God, family and the struggle against Communism,” said that boy, now known as Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

Archbishop Dolan led a memorial Mass on Wednesday evening at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Bishop Sheen. An auxiliary bishop of the New York Archdiocese from 1951 to 1965, the man whom the Rev. Billy Graham called “the greatest communicator of the 20th century” is buried in a crypt under the cathedral altar, which was open for public viewing before the Mass.

In a way, the event — which attracted Roman Catholic dignitaries, parishioners from across the country and two great-great nieces of the bishop — served unofficially as promotion for a little-noticed campaign to make Bishop Sheen, the first and greatest Catholic televangelist, a saint of the church.

After 20 years in radio, Bishop Sheen scored a hit with his first weekly TV show, “Life is Worth Living,” on the DuMont network. The program drew tens of millions of viewers on Tuesday nights from 1951 to 1957, though it appeared opposite giants of early television like Lucille Ball and Milton Berle (who once quipped that the bishop was pretty good for a guy who “uses old material”).

In those broadcasts, and a similar show syndicated from 1961 to 1968, the bishop, an Illinois farmer’s son who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Marxism, used a polished extemporaneous style to comment on topics of the day, whether movies, Broadway plays or international politics. Among his most famous half-hour commentaries was a 1953 denunciation of Joseph Stalin.

“When he came upon the scene, there was still wavering doubt about whether Catholics were truly American,” said John L. Allen Jr., an author of books about Catholicism and senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper. “Sheen clinched the deal with the general public, showing that you could be completely Catholic and completely American.”

Some scholars credit the popularity of his broadcast with making possible the 1960 election of the country’s first and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

Unlike the other famous Catholic broadcaster of the 20th century, the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, who blended harsh attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt with anti-Semitism, Bishop Sheen combined his vigorous anti-Communism with an almost equally strong anti-racist message that placed him well ahead of the curve as an advocate for civil rights in the 1950s. In 1967, he also became a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam.

For Archbishop Dolan, 59, who grew up in suburban St. Louis, the unabashed Catholicism of the red cape and crucifix worn by Bishop Sheen during all his broadcasts — though risky in its time — proved that the core beliefs of a Catholic “could be expressed by a person who was well-educated, down to earth and not threatening in the least,” he said.

Bishop Sheen’s great crossover appeal was made evident one night when the future archbishop’s father walked in the door and recounted what had just happened while he was taking out the garbage.

“We had a neighbor named Norm who used to always kid my dad about being Catholic,” Archbishop Dolan said in an interview on Tuesday. “And one evening he meets my dad at the curb and says: ‘Bob, I was watching that bishop of yours. Sheen. He’s not a bad guy. He makes a lot of sense.’ ”

The neighbor’s gibes were never particularly mean-spirited, and Bob Dolan was not a particularly observant Catholic. But the father’s response to the neighbor’s comment was memorable. “He came into the house, beaming, bursting with pride,” the archbishop said. “ ‘You’ll never guess what Norm just said,’ he tells us all.”

Since 2002, the effort to canonize Bishop Sheen has been led by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., where the Sheen family raised their four sons and where Bishop Sheen was ordained in 1919.

The Rev. Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan friar who is gathering evidence of miracles attributed to Bishop Sheen’s intercession since his death in 1979, said the bishop had been designated by the Vatican as a “Servant of God,” the first step toward sainthood.

Two months ago, Father Apostoli said, evidence of two miracles, including affidavits signed by doctors and witnesses to medical recoveries “unexplainable by science,” were submitted to the Vatican for verification. If accepted, the bishop would be beatified, or made a “Blessed Person,” and after verification of a third miracle, made a saint.

It is customary, he said, for the bishops in the places where saints are born to seek the return of their remains. In Bishop Sheen’s case, that would mean removal from the crypt at St. Patrick’s and reburial at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

Really? he was asked.

“Well, yes, but it is a very sensitive point, so I don’t want to say anything further about that,” Father Apostoli said.

Archbishop Dolan said he knew about the custom. “Bishop Jenky is a good friend of mine, and I appreciate that he would dream that someday the remains of Bishop Sheen would be returned to Peoria,” he said. “He even kids me about it: ‘You know, Tim, when he becomes a saint, we’re going to try and get him.’ ”

He paused. “But, you know, Bishop Sheen only spent a few years in Peoria.”

He paused again, as if searching for words. “And he loved New York.”

Bishop Jenky, who attended Wednesday’s Mass, could not be reached for comment.

Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

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