Recently the Catholic media has been buzzing with news of a miracle attributed to the intercession of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I read it on the Alateia website and it was also reported elsewhere, including the Catholic Herald for 14 March. The miracle is extraordinary enough – the raising of a dead baby to life – and it has been authenticated by a seven-member team of medical experts at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. It still has to be reviewed by a board of theologians, but if all the hurdles are crossed successfully Sheen would be elevated from being “Venerable” to “Blessed” – the same status as Blessed John Henry Newman. He would be on the road towards canonization.
The life of any holy person moving towards canonization is worth rejoicing over, but the case of Archbishop Sheen is especially significant for our times. We live in a world that is completely dominated by the media, so it is through the media that the authentic voice of the Church needs to be heard. Sheen understood this. Described by the Herald as “the 20th century’s most prominent Catholic televangelist”, he realised the power of the new medium of television as a tool for evangelisation before anyone else in the Church had come to grips with it. Through his TV series “Life is Worth Living” he achieved enormous influence, reaching millions of people, outside the Church as well as inside it. So I have been watching YouTube clips of his broadcasts, to try to understand his appeal.
Well, he was blessed with natural gifts: a commanding physical presence and aura as well as a clear and resonating voice. He was also an instinctive communicator, able to explain complex theological beliefs in a way that his audiences could understand. Like John Paul II he radiated confidence and conviction, and like the late pope (who had been an actor in his youth) he understood the importance of theatre in his presentations. Whether in the earlier black and white programmes or the later colour ones, he always wore the full clerical dress of his office which created its own impression of authority. He would sweep onto the “stage”, make a slight formal bow and then proceed to speak in his slow, clear, emphatic style. He was not afraid of long pauses and he had perfect timing for his jokes and stories, yet he never lost sight of the seriousness of what he was about. He kept millions of Americans glued to their screens every week. His only props were a blackboard and chalk, on which he sometimes wrote with a flourish, to emphasise a word or point.
It was a magnificent performance. But underneath the visual theatre it was Sheen’s solemn, and occasionally impassioned, explanation of belief that held people spellbound. It was not exactly “triumphalist” – but it was definitely the “Church triumphant”. Whatever Sheen was lecturing on he made the truths of the Faith sound profoundly and inevitably true and of the gravest importance to mankind, not just those within the Church. It certainly helped that he was living in a more docile and respectful age. I doubt he would have taken to the blogosphere. The frenetic pace, the constant barrage of opinions and the lack of charity would have appalled him.
Some people look back with nostalgia to his broadcasts but I think that is sentimentality. Sheen was a gift to the Church of his time and he used his gifts to the full. When I heard of the miracle of baby James Fulton Travis I thought, “If Sheen is beatified it will help people today recognise the need to pray to him, that we might have another Catholic communicator with similar gifts, but suited to the restless attention spans and lack of traditional cultural references of modern viewers.”