Bishop Fulton Sheen: The First "Televangelist"

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Bishop Fulton Sheen

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He did a good deal of moving back & forth between the airy study and the serious basement. The majority of Sheen's books (Peace of Soul, Lift Up Your Heart, Three to Get Married) are upstairs work, designed for the middle-brow reader. But some are serious, furnace-room philosophy (God and Intelligence, The Philosophy of Religion). This week Sheen published his 36th full-length book, The World's First Love, about the Virgin Mary. Like all his others, the book is dedicated to Mary — or, as he puts it in the dedication, "the Woman Who, in a world of Reds, shows forth the blue of hope." Tiller of the Soul. More than anything else, it was Sheen's conversions that made him a national figure. His many well-meaning friends sometimes act as self-appointed talent scouts, and give him suggestions on likely prospects. Sometimes Sheen himself takes the offensive. When he got into a newspaper controversy with Heywood Broun over evolution, he called his adversary on the telephone. "I want to see you," said Sheen.

"What about?" asked Broun.

"Your soul."

They met at a Manhattan hotel and talked. Later, Sheen called Broun up again. "Heywood," he said, "you've run a thousand miles. You better come in and let me service you." Nine years later, seven months before his death, Broun entered the Church.

How does Sheen do it?

He lists three reasons why people turn to the Church: 1) a moral crisis, i.e., consciousness of sin. "Sin becomes the occasion of a loneliness and a void which God alone can relieve." 2) A spiritual or intellectual crisis, i.e., "the growing sense of dissatisfaction with their own ordinariness." 3) A physical crisis, such as illness or accident. Sometimes, adds Sheen, people who most vociferously hate the Church are the closest to conversion: "Hatred indicates interest." The pattern of instruction is always the same. Sheen starts with reason, firmly discouraging all mysticism or merely emotional belief. When people tell him they believe in God, he wants to know why, and won't let them off the hook till they can recite the logical proofs for God's existence. These early lessons on reason prove the most difficult; the going gets easier, rather than rougher, when Sheen reaches matters of faith.

Sheen's average course of instruction lasts 25 hours, at the rate of one hour a week. He can usually tell after the first couple of hours who will make it and who won't. In private instruction, more than 95% of the people become converts. In groups, the percentage is much lower; out of a class of 60, only 15 may be baptized. Sheen vigorously disclaims any personal credit for these conversions. He considers himself merely "a spiritual agriculturist [who] tills the soil. All the tilling in the world would make no difference if the seed had not been dropped by God."

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