Bishop Fulton Sheen: The First "Televangelist"

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Bishop Fulton Sheen

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But Sheen knows his agriculture. He never uses pressure. "You will incur no obligation," he tells people who come to him for instruction. He goes easy on argument ("Win an argument and lose a soul"), never gets angry ("At least not any more"). But he is relentlessly logical. One of his converts, a middle-aged man in the textile business, reports: "I had been avoiding a decision for years. Sheen doesn't let you do that. He throws it right in your teeth. The one thing that was hard for me as a Jew to accept was the divinity of Christ. I kept putting it off. Then, when Sheen began to weed out those in the class that weren't really interested, he finished one lecture with: 'What think ye of Christ?' I wandered around freezing in Central Park for hours that night, and the week that followed was the worst I ever spent. But I couldn't put off the decision any longer. Something about him wouldn't let me."

Sheen has great personal magnetism. It is in his voice, in his hands (which always linger in a handshake), above all, in his eyes. They are one of the most remarkable pairs of eyes in America, looking out from deep sockets, pupil and iris almost merged in one luminous disk which creates the optical illusion that he not only looks at people but through them and at everything around them. Strong men have been known to flinch before that gaze.

Sheen now gives instruction only to ten people, in individual sessions (his latest group includes an interior decorator and a maid), and receives about one convert a week into the Church. Because of his other duties, he has thought of giving up his conversion work entirely—"You have to be enthusiastic, and when you've had a long day it isn't always easy"—but decided to keep it up. "If I have more talents than others, they came from our Lord and they must be used for His work."

Greatest Actor? But Bishop Sheen is not using the coaxial cable to try to convert America to the Catholic faith. What he has to say on TV is not dogma, but a mixture of common sense, logic and Christian ethics. Says Sheen: "Americans are like dry wood that can be ignited—with inspiration. People want to be good. But they want reasons. If you give people a reason, they at least have to have a reason to disagree. This helps all of us. I try to bring fresh air into the home."

Sheen's TV performance is remarkable not only for its length but for its ad-liberty. He speaks for 28 minutes straight, without script or cue cards. Without even a written outline, he produces facts, dates, six-digit statistics with the precision of an electronic calculator. For about ten minutes before the show he usually meditates, on an unused part of the stage, set for a murder mystery or a comedy show. Once on the air, he never fumbles or rambles. He prides himself on the fact that in-a quarter-century of broadcasting, he has never finished more than two seconds early or late. The trick: "Always know how you're going to end. It may be a paragraph or a sentence, but know how long it's going to take to say it. Then you watch the clock; when there's just time enough for the conclusion, say it, and you're finished—on time."

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