News & Commentary

Documentary covers FBI file kept on Archbishop Sheen

This image is part of the promotional material for "Follow That Bishop," a 28-minute documentary reporting on the FBI file kept on Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. (OSV News photo/courtesy Rome Reports)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Nearly 75 years after he stopped teaching at The Catholic University of America in Washington, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) can still fill a campus auditorium.

The occasion was a March 7 screening of “Follow That Bishop!” a half-hour documentary made last year in support of Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause and produced by Rome Reports, a TV news agency that covers Pope Francis and the Vatican.

Co-directed by Antonio Olivié, CEO of Rome Reports, and Sean Patrick Lovett, director of the news agency’s international department, “Follow That Bishop!” focuses on the oddities of a file the FBI kept on the prelate and a miracle attributed to his intercession that involved the sudden recovery of James Engstrom of Washington, Illinois, who was initially considered stillborn when he was delivered during a planned home birth Sept. 16, 2010.

The FBI file, which the bureau put on its website years ago, has never been much of a secret. It begins in 1943 with an anonymous complaint about a speech the then-monsignor made in which he criticized communism and the Soviet Union, then an American ally in World War II. Sheen had been making such criticisms of Marxist beliefs since the 1930s, and he never modified them during the war. The letter-writer was worried that such remarks could somehow tip the war to the Nazis.

This led to a meandering report from an FBI informant about the personal activities of an ascetic scholar, turning up such non-scandalous gems as his lack of a social life, fondness for chocolate ice cream and his Holy Hour each morning after awakening at 6 a.m. There also is mention of him once talking a police officer out of giving him a speeding ticket.

Bishop Sheen is shown in one of his later programs saying of the Holy Hour, “That’s where I got power. That’s where I got light.”

After the war, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded that not only was the bishop not prone to sedition, he was instead a powerful and respected ally in the Cold War against communism. He added him to the bureau’s mailing list, and later invited him to a swearing-in of new agents, and even to the annual agent retreat in Maryland.

A 1958 letter from Bishop Sheen to Hoover praised him for “how you have built up a tradition toward Divine Justice in this country which has been incomparable in the life of free people.”

Then-Father Sheen, later monsignor, taught religion and philosophy at The Catholic University of America from 1926 to 1950 and, for most of that time, he also hosted “The Catholic Hour” weekly on NBC radio. After being consecrated in 1951 as an auxiliary bishop of New York, he began, in 1952, his “Life Is Worth Living” TV series, live on Tuesday nights on the tiny DuMont network.

Starting on just three DuMont stations and eventually expanding to 169 before moving to ABC in 1955, the program was an instant hit, garnering at its peak up to 30 million viewers, earning Bishop Sheen an Emmy Award in 1953 and marking the beginning of the end for “Mr. Television” Milton Berle’s hourlong variety show Tuesday nights on NBC.

It is still a landmark in religious programming for its low-key presentation and viewer appeal just for simply talking.

That Emmy — the only one ever awarded to a religious broadcaster — established Bishop Sheen as a national religious figure in a nation that still harbored suspicions of, and expressed outright bigotry to, adherents of the Catholic faith.

Bishop Sheen never asked for donations on-air. His tightly prepared but simple half-hour “chalk talks” on moral issues, as he called them — considered non-sectarian despite his bishop’s robes — came with commercials. He was originally sponsored by Admiral, a manufacturer of TV sets and appliances, and the fees outside of production costs were given to the Mission Humanity charity.

Ordained a priest in 1919, Sheen was consecrated a bishop June 11, 1951, and served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. In 1958, he was appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a position he held until 1966, when he was appointed bishop of Rochester, New York. He served in this position from Oct. 21, 1966, to Oct. 6, 1969, when Pope Paul VI accepted his resignation. The pope named Bishop Sheen the archbishop of the titular see of Newport, Wales, in 1969.

Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause officially was opened in 2002. Pope Benedict XVI approved his heroic virtues and declared him venerable in 2012. In July 2019, Pope Francis approved the miraculous healing of the Engstrom baby, paving the way for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification. The ceremony was to take place Dec. 21, 2019, but it was put on hold pending a completed review from the New York State Attorney General’s office of how, as the bishop of Rochester, he had handled cases of sexual abuse or misconduct.

Archbishop Sheen wrote 66 books and hundreds of newspaper columns dating back to the 1930s, and he was a popular guest speaker at universities. But his fame was built on the strength of just himself, looking straight into the camera, making gentle jokes and occasionally pointing a finger for emphasis.

After his death, syndicated columnist Jim Bishop, a Catholic who sometimes helped the bishop with his writing, described the phenomenon this way, “He looked like a handsome magician in the satin cape caught at the throat, swirling and pirouetting, with a stub of chalk between his fingers, the dark eyes recessed like caves.”

And since his broadcasts by the second season were in a theater with an audience, Bishop Sheen sometimes succumbed to a performer’s ham instinct, mentioning Berle as much as Berle mentioned the bishop, just for a quick laugh.

This led John Crosby, TV critic of the New York Herald Tribune, to complain, “I wish they’d quit it. I don’t think the bishop needs running gags.”

At Catholic University, during a panel discussion after the screening of the documentary, Thomas Smith, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, told the audience that Archbishop Sheen’s presence can still be felt in his former offices. He also noted that his father, a World War II veteran, who attended classes at the university, was an avid fan of the prelate’s books.

“And for a while, he dated Bishop Sheen’s secretary,” he added. “She was a perfectly lovely woman.”

By Kurt Jensen | OSV News