Media has the power to make a huge impact on the world. That’s why Relevant Radio® exists – to bring Christ to the world through media – because media helps shape lives and culture in a unique and compelling way. If you need an example of that, you need look no further than Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a priest in the Diocese of Peoria and a bishop in New York, but is perhaps best known as the host of the television show Life is Worth Living, which aired in the 1950s and 60s. Pope Francis recently approved a miracle attributed to Sheen’s intercession, paving the way for his beatification.
Though Sheen was a popular TV host, his legacy is much more than his ratings. Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, stopped by The Patrick Madrid Show recently to discuss the legacy of Sheen with guest host Fr. Rocky.
Sheen’s television show Life is Worth Living drew a weekly audience of 30 million viewers, and Barron credited Sheen’s vision as part of that success, saying “He was someone who, in his time, used the cutting edge media for the purpose of the Gospel. And he was someone who, before John Paul II put it this way, embodied the New Evangelization. John Paul said ‘new in ardor, new in method, and new in expression.’ And I think Fulton Sheen had all of that in place. … He was our model in how to do a smart, engaging evangelization that uses the cutting edge media of the time.”
While the fact that Sheen’s program is still re-watched and re-listened to today is a testament to its success, it’s hard to overstate how popular it was at the time it was on.
“No one believed that he would be able to survive on television,” Barron said. “But he not only survived, he beat them at their own game. He took on Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle. Leading entertainers of the time. And he beat them at their own game, which surprised I think pretty much everybody. … You watch him today and you see why. He had an extraordinary power.”
Could a program like Life is Worth Living have the same success and impact on today’s audiences as it did in its original run? Barron expressed doubts, due to the change in both religious practice and the media landscape, saying, “My concern today is the attention span is so comparatively small. And with all of our distractions and our Twitter accounts and iPhones and everything, that to sit and listen to a sustained discourse for that long is hard for people today. We probably have to give it in smaller nuggets.”
But though Sheen may not have the number of followers he had during his lifetime, his impact and legacy are tremendous. He has inspired the way that many evangelists share the faith, including Bishop Barron in his own popular Catholicism series.
“I’ve been railing for years against the dumbed-down Catholicism,” Barron said. “That we just try to put it at the least common denominator. Look at Sheen’s audience. They were certainly able to take it in. He was doing Thomas Aquinas, he was doing papal encyclicals, he was doing high level stuff. And they listened in prime time for half an hour. So we probably underestimate what the audience today is capable of.”
Something that Sheen championed on Life is Worth Living was the practice of a holy hour. A holy hour is where someone spends one hour in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and though it was not as popular during Sheen’s lifetime, Barron shared that part of Sheen’s legacy has been how the concept and practice of a holy hour has been embraced in recent decades.
“When we were younger it wasn’t really emphasized,” Barron explained. “I confess I was brought back into the holy hour by a lot of my students, seminarians at Mundelein. Sheen in a way jumped a generation. Our generation wasn’t plugged in to Sheen in the same way. And then he jumped our generation and the kids that I taught suddenly had rediscovered Fulton Sheen and they discovered the holy hour. Now it’s standard practice in most seminaries.”
In fact, Barron not only carries on Sheen’s legacy in his media work with Word on Fire Ministries, he also carries on his legacy in encouraging holy hours among those he ministers to as a bishop.
“When I talk to young priests here in LA and they’re looking for advice about their pastoral lives and what to do, I always say, ‘Look, before everything else, do your holy hour. Make sure that every single day you do your holy hour. And the rest, in a way, will take care of itself. The Lord will teach you how to do your pastoral work, He’ll inspire your sermons, etc. But make the hour of prayer a priority.’ And I learned that from Fulton Sheen.”
Listen to the full conversation with Bishop Barron below:
You can listen to episodes of Life is Worth Living Sundays at 8am and 9pm ET/5am & 6pm PT on Relevant Radio and the Relevant Radio App.