November 18, 2015

The man who reminded us that life is worth living

BISHOP FULTON J. SHEEN AT THE BLACKBOARD, CIRCA 1950s     .
Ask people for one word to describe how they feel about things today, and odds are a good number of them will use the word "despair." The political situation? It doesn't matter who wins or loses, nothing changes. The economy? There's nothing we can do about it, and we'll probably never be able to retire. Religion? Who knows what to believe anymore.

Yes, no matter who you talk with, no matter what subject, there seems to be this sense that things aren't good and they're only getting worse, that perhaps things might never get better. It's a tough world out there, and you think it will break your heart if you're not careful. No wonder despair is the word that first pops into so many heads.

In some ways, this isn't much different from the '50s and '60s. Remember that the '50s, for all the talk about limitless potential, was still marked by fear and trembling. The threat of the Bomb. The Russians leading in the space race. The pressure to keep up with the Joneses in a newly consumerist society is intense. The idea of an unwanted pregnancy or a spouse unwilling to agree to a divorce is the pivot point of many a murder mystery. Whenever you look at entertainment of the era, from Patterns to The Twilight Zone's memorable "A Stop at Willoughby" (both written by Rod Serling) to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the movie The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, one can see the tumult just under the surface of the post-war era. And the '60s just ramp up the pressure, with Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll just the tip of the iceberg.

In such an era, is it any surprise that one of the most successful programs on television featured a Catholic priest whose message was simple yet direct: life is worth living.

That priest was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and his program, Life Is Worth Living, premiered on DuMont in 1952, and after moving to ABC in 1955, continued to air weekly until 1957; the program continued on in syndication, under the less-descriptive title The Fulton Sheen Program, off-and-on until 1968. Volumes have been written about Bishop Sheen (who began in broadcasting with a radio program in 1930), and I won't attempt to recapitulate it all here; suffice it to say that Fulton Sheen was extremely successful on television, drawing as many as thirty million viewers a week, and being the only show to provide any serious competition when aired opposite Milton Berle's hit show*; and was as successful in print, authoring over 70 books on the spiritual life. He was responsible for the conversion of many prominent people into the Catholic Church, and probably only God Himself knows how many other people he touched in one way or another. Bishop Sheen died in 1979, but many of his books remain in print, and many of his shows continue to air on television (EWTN) and sell on DVD.

*Berle, known as "Uncle Miltie," dubbed his good friend "Uncle Fultie," and when winning an Emmy, Sheen's acceptance speech thanked his four writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It's a remarkable legacy for any media figure, let alone a clergyman. I'll grant you that times were different then; it's unimaginable that such a show as Life Is Worth Living could air on network television today. But then, in these confusing times it's unimaginable that so many people - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish alike - could find solace in those four simple words: life is worth living.

A side note: in one of his most famous broadcasts, delivered in February of 1953, he delivered what Brooks and Marsh's Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows called a "hair-raising" rendition (without notes) of Marc Antony's famous funeral oration for Caesar (as written by Shakespeare). The show apparently doesn't exist, at least not in any medium I've found, but in my collection of scripts from the show I've got a copy of that one, in which Sheen substitutes names of prominent Soviet leaders — Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky — for those of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus.  It is hair-raising, just in print, and I can only imagine how it must have sounded in Sheen's magnificent, charismatic oration. Concluding the program, Sheen dramatically notes that "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." A few days later, Stalin suffered a stroke and was dead within the week.

Sheen was no Pandora; he recognized well the threat of Communism ("Communism in America," "Western and Communist World," "Does Capitalism Still Exist") as well as the threats that were implicit in the culture built by the post-war era. He discussed man's weaknesses ("Hope for a Wounded World," "Human Passions and Emotions," "Selfishness"), the struggles of daily life ("Gloom," "Guilt," "Suffering," "Temptation," "The Identity Crisis"), ways of self-improvement ("An Alcoholic is Not a Pig," "How to Improve Your Mind," "How to Think"). Shows such as "The Psychology of the Rat Race," "What is Meant by Happiness?" and "War as a Judgment From God" could be given today without very little editing, and in shows like "There Is Hope" he reinforces the message of those four words.

Listening to Sheen's programs today, one is struck (not for the first time when watching classic television) by how little has changed. The specific names of issues may be different, the circumstances may be slightly altered, but at heart the insecurities, frailties, fears and sins of man remain as ever they have been and ever will be. What Sheen understood, perhaps better than anyone who's ever appeared on television, is the essential existentialist struggle that is part of life. St. John Paul II once remarked that the ordinary life is full of drama far beyond what any dramatist could concoct, and in a program such as "The Stranger Within" Sheen illustrates that existential drama. Television is in many ways a remarkable medium, but one thing it has never done well is existentialism. It does nihilism far better, by the way, and it's also quite good at amorality, but to seriously discuss the meaning of life and the implications arising from various answers is something one doesn't see anymore, and seldom did anywhere (aside from a top-notch drama) other than from Bishop Sheen.

Perhaps the biggest difference to be found, from the Catholic viewpoint, is how the Church has ceased to be the public foundation of certainty and instruction. As anyone who's read my commentary over at In Other Words knows (it's also the subject of my new book, The Collaborator), I've lamented the confusion, contradiction and outright heresy that has infiltrated the Church during the last fifty-some years. Today, even if someone were to have the opportunity to speak from a network-provided pulpit, it's unlikely he'd be able to speak from any kind of authority; if people didn't like he was saying, they'd just get contradictory advice from another Catholic prelate.

So a debate rages on, mainly from within the Church but extending outside as well, as to what exactly the Catholic Church stands for, what she represents, what her role is in the world. What I find remarkable is that through all this conflict, which in and of itself is enough to cause one to despair, so few people have hearkened back to the message of Fulton J. Sheen, and how applicable it is to people today. And yet we live in a time when suicide is rampant, especially among young people and military veterans, when so many people are inclined to throw up their hands in exasperation, when nihilism has invaded the subconscious and the existential. We debate liberal vs. conservative, orthodox vs. heterodox, we've battled over race, gender, identity; we've done just about everything within our power to ridicule and demonize those who disagree with us, and even some of those who agree. But through it all, from each and every source, I rarely hear those four words, the words that Bishop Sheen preached every week for so many years, the words that are not necessarily the end but most assuredly are the beginning, and from which goodness can ultimately flow.

Life is worth living. On that you can depend.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is a beautiful reminder at a time when a reminder is needed.

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  2. Wonderful piece. I've watched several of these shows on EWTN, and am happy to know now that many more are available on YouTube. I look forward to seeing them.

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  3. If my memory serves me correct, I thought Bishop Fulton Sheen worked alongside Walter Cronkite for CBS's coverage of both Pope Paul VI's visit to New York in 1965 and Pope John Paul II's visit to the U.S. in 1979.

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