Venerable Fulton Sheen: when the cameras were off

I’m old enough to remember watching Venerable Fulton J. Sheen live on television. Regardless of what we were doing, every Tuesday evening, everyone in the family was summoned to the living room to watch “Life is Worth Living,” which at the time was the most widely viewed religious show in the history of television.

In 1953, the renowned Catholic prelate won an Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality – a testament not only to his spiritual influence, but to his natural charisma.

Admittedly, I was too young to appreciate much of what then-Bishop Sheen had to say, but I remember his seemingly flamboyant entrance at the beginning of each show, his charismatic smile, and the playful twinkle in his eyes.

With chalk in hand, the blackboard served as his “low tech” prop, which was cleaned during commercial breaks, a task he attributed to his guardian angel. Given this, it’s no surprise that a longstanding sponsor of the show was Halo Shampoo.

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate Sheen’s wisdom through the many books he’s written, but it’s his personal holiness that has inspired me most.

A friend and parishioner at St. Gabriel, Chesterfield, gave permission for me to share her story. In the winter of 1960, Bobbie Gerold was a flight attendant working the eight-hour red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York, and Bishop Sheen was a passenger.

Although Bobbie was not Catholic at the time, she recognized him from his TV show, and chatted with him briefly as she went about serving passengers, making them comfortable for the long flight ahead. After everyone was settled for the night, Bishop Sheen invited Bobbie to come sit beside him.

Once seated, he asked her to tell him her story, at which point she broke down. Bobbie had recently lost her roommate and the man she was in love with was killed by a drunk driver. She admitted that becoming a flight attendant was her way of escaping feelings of loss.

After listening to her, Bishop Sheen explained that he would be saying Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the next day, and invited her to attend. Since she had a layover in New York, she took him up on his offer, and listening to Bishop Sheen’s homily on the lost sheep became a watershed moment for Bobbie.

After Mass, she met once again with the bishop, and after they spoke, he gave her a beautiful crystal pendant that contained a mustard seed, which she still has today. A few months later, Bobbie was received into the Catholic Church. The next day, she met a man at a church dance whom she eventually married, and as they say, the rest is history.

I suspect part of the reason this story came to mind is that I’m currently reading the book, “The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God,” which the late archbishop claimed to be his favorite among the 70 books he authored.

Another reason was that as I reflected on the reading in this morning’s Liturgy of the Hours, the words of St. James seemed to leap off the page: “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it” (Jm. 2:14).

The apostle points to the corporal works of mercy, and although they are important, we can easily overlook the importance of simply being present to one another, listening to their story, hearing their pain, and letting them know we care.

Fulton J. Sheen will long be remembered for his television show and for the many books he wrote, but being a great theologian, a gifted speaker and author are not enough to make someone a saint.

As St. Paul wrote so eloquently, “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor.13; 1-2).

Knowing that he had a full day ahead, it would have been easy for Fulton Sheen to settle in and sleep during the flight. Instead, he chose to seek out a stranger in the quiet of a midnight flight to let her know that she was loved.

There were no cameras or fans – only a woman, who perhaps he sensed needed to be comforted, and so he obliged. I believe that Archbishop Sheen will be remembered as a holy man of God, not because of what he did, but because of who he was when God, who sees in secret, has surely rewarded him.

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