Fulton Sheen’s Secret to Evangelization

[ 26 ] October 1, AD 2012 |

Who was the greatest Catholic evangelist of the twentieth century? To me it’s no contest: Venerable Fulton J. Sheen. Some might argue for Pope John Paul II, who had a bigger impact on the world. Others might claim Mother Teresa, whose smile and sari were certainly more recognizable. But in terms of evangelization, I don’t think anyone drew more people into the Church than Sheen.

His success was due in large part to his mastery of new media, which in his day meant radio and television. In 1930, Sheen launched his “Catholic Hour” radio show. It broadcast globally on over 100 stations and reached more than 7 million listeners. In 1951, he moved to television, where his popular “Life Is Worth Living” show drew in over 30 million people each week.

The show also generated more than 20,000 personal letters written daily to Sheen, many of which he answered himself. Through his mail correspondence and personal instruction, he helped thousands of people enter the Church and countless others further into it. In fact, my own spiritual director is one of them. He’s an 89-year-old, self-described “Sheen-fiend” who credits Sheen with inspiring him to become a priest.

What made Sheen so successful? He of course had charisma, wit, and intelligence, but what strategies did he use to draw people to Christ?

One of Sheen’s most powerful methods was to carefully determine a person’s real resistance to faith. For example, whenever he met someone who disagreed with the Church, he would always hear them out fully before responding. And even after that he would ask follow-up questions, just to make sure he understood the real objection at hand.

In his autobiography, Treasure In Clay, Sheen tells a story which shows this in action:

“I remember a stewardess on an international airline who began instructions [in Catholicism]. When we came to the subject of confession and sin, she said that she could not continue. I begged her to take one more hour of instruction, and then if she did not like what was said, she could leave.

At the end of the second hour on that subject, she became almost violent and shouted: “Now I’ll never join the Church after what I have heard about confessing sin.” I said to her: “There is no proportion whatever between what you have heard and the way you are acting. Have you ever had an abortion?” She hung her head in shame and admitted that she had.

That was the difficulty; it was not the sacrament of Penance. Later on I received her into the Church and baptized her first child. From my experience it is always well never to pay attention to what people say, but rather why they say it. So often there is a rationalization of the way they live.”

Fulton Sheen, Treasure In Clay (New York, NY: Image, 1982), 278-279.

This story highlights an important observation: doctrinal objections to Catholicism are often moral objections in disguise. Earlier in his book, Sheen affirms that “most people basically do not have trouble with the Creed, but with the Commandments; not so much with what the Church teaches, as with how the Church asks us to behave.”

This certainly resonates with conversations I’ve had, and perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing. The reasons people give for rejecting faith or Christianity are often masking real reasons hidden within.

Next time you encounter this type of opposition, see if there’s some deeper objection beneath the surface. If they grate against the Church’s teaching on contraception, for instance, ask why it seems so bothersome. If they resist the Church because it is purportedly “anti-science” or “anti-woman”, probe deeper and see if there’s a bigger hangup lurking underneath.

One way I do this is to ask, “Is that honestly the main reason you’re not Catholic? If I can show you the Church is actually a great proponent of science and women would you enter it?” Most of the time the answer is No, which betrays a deeper objection. And in most cases, that deeper objection surrounds the Church’s moral teachings.

Sheen knew this and it helped him guide many people into the Church. As the New Evangelization moves forward, let’s model his strategy and focus our evangelization on the real hangups people have, which are often radically different than their surface-level protests.

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About the Author ()

Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at BrandonVogt.com. He's also the author of The Church and Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet and the top hit on Google for "greatest evil in the world".
  • http://aknottedlife.blogspot.com Bonnie

    Thank you for showing us how really simple it can be.

    Fulton Sheen would be so proud of you, Brandon.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

      Thanks, Bonnie! That means a lot especially coming from you.

      • Robert A. Rowl;and

        Thank you Brandon for this article. I doubt that anyone has a higher regard for Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He has been my favorite mentor for over 65 years, and I agree that he is the greatest Catholic evangelist of the 20th Century, and I lived in that century for 73 years.

  • Rick

    Another reason why Bishop Sheen was so effective was his incomparable mastery of the art of public speaking. Notice when he speaks, he never uses long drawn out sentences, or complicated words. Or if he uses a novel term, he is always careful to define it. He speaks only from memory or short notes. He rarely speaks for more than 15 seconds at a time, and then he pauses, for about 5 seconds. This makes his preaching easy to understand at the time that he his speaking, and easy to recall later.

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  • Christopher

    I think this MAY be true. But at the same time, using this criteria, St. Therese wouldn’t be Patroness of the Missions, some great preacher of her time would be. And Archbishop Sheen steadfastly refused to “count” the number of converts he made. . .and how would we “count” the conversions through St. Therese, before or AFTER her death??

  • Bruno

    I met Bishop Sheen not more than a month ago, thanks to Ignitum I guess, and I am still astounded by the man. How had I never heard of him? That was a great man.

  • http://realcatholicloveandsex.blogspot.com waywardson

    “Next time you encounter this type of opposition, see if there’s some deeper objection beneath the surface. If they grate against the Church’s teaching on contraception, for instance, ask why it seems so bothersome.”

    But sometimes there is a very good reason for it being bothersome and this reason is primarily biological in nature.

    The Church’s teaching on the contraception and marriage is true, but following it can be technically difficult. Thus the call for “men of science” to make it easier on couples.

    “If they resist the Church because it is purportedly “anti-science” or “anti-woman”, probe deeper and see if there’s a bigger hangup lurking underneath.”

    Sometimes this is because they have met individual Catholics who are anti-woman and/or anti-science and were hurt by them. Not sure how to deal with this.

  • wil

    Too bad and sad the USCCB does not believe in Evangelization and education. Why OH why have USCCB instructed LOGOS not to sell me a copy of their software on the catechism and on the bible?
    Could it be that bishops today do not want to share the faith?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

      Wil, as I’ve noted before, I share your frustration about the Catechism and RSV permissions, which is why I started the #freethecatechism campaign.

      But even without those resources, both of which are available free online, you still have the most powerful evangelistic tool around: yourself.

      You’re a witness who can evangelize more effectively than any book.

      Accusing the bishops of “not wanting to share the faith” is silly at best and calumny at worst. There’s no reason for such claims.

      In Sheen’s day, many of the bishops failed to emphasize evangelization as much as they should. But Sheen, instead of condemning them, decided to evangelize regardless of the support.

      We should do the same.

      (You also misconstrue the USCCB, who I’m sure did not tell Logos, “DO NOT SELL THE CATECHISM TO WIL!!”. The USCCB only has rights to publish the Catechism within the US and therefore they can’t license Logos to sell the Catechism internationally. The decision is out of their hands.)

  • Katherine

    Thanks for explaining Bishop Sheen’s method. He was instrumental in my parent’s catechesis and conversion. I look forward to your part 2 which would explain the next and most important step. Hope the good Bishop has an equally easy way to handle the person’s deeper objection. “And in most cases, that deeper objection surrounds the Church’s moral teachings.” This is the critical step. Don’t let us hang too long! Thanks ahead!

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

      Katherine, thanks for the comment! Is there a specific moral objection you’re having trouble answering? I ask because the contributors here at Ignitum Today have dealt with many of them in depth so you might find something already written.

  • Templar

    I spent many wonderful hours listening to Bishop Sheen. Please remember what Our Lady of the Rosary said to the Fatima children immediately after the vision of Hell, “You have seen Hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world, devotion to My Immaculate Heart.” Why have the Popes ignored this key request? How many souls have been lost as a result? How can the new push for evengelization have any success, when this key request goes un-answered?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com Brandon Vogt

      I don’t think the Popes have ignored this request. Pope John Paul II was the world’s greatest advocate of Marian devotion.

      For a look at Sheen, Fatima, and evangelization, check out Fr. Andrew Apostoli’s book, “Fatima For Today.” Fr. Apostoli is an expert on both Fatima and Fulton Sheen and was in fact ordained by Sheen himself.

      AMAZON: http://bvogt.us/O2wFkO

      • Robert A. Rowl;and

        You are right, Brandon. Father Apostoli’s book about Fatima is the definitive source for understanding Fatima. I was active in the World Apostolate of Fatima for over 30 years. I have read many books about Fatima, and I can assure you this is the best I have seen. I have had other dealings with Father Andrew as the Postulator for the Cause of Archbishop Sheen concerning his intercession on my behalf. I have the highest respect for Father Apostoli and his ministry.

      • Templar

        “I don’t think the Popes have ignored this request. Pope John Paul II was the world’s greatest advocate of Marian devotion.”

        Okay, I remember the motto, Totus Tuus. I remember a televised Rosary. What I don’t remember is any of the Popes since the request was made, urging Catholics worldwide to pray the Rosary daily, wear the Brown Scapular, make Communions of reparattion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and make the Five First Saturday devotions in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. That would have fulfilled the request. Writing books and giving a sermon on Our Lady on this or that Feast Day isn’t the same thing as establishing a devotion. There are a relative few laypersons that have taken the initiative on their own to do these things, but that is about the extent of it. Surely not what Our Lady of the Rosary had in mind when, with a graphic vision of Hell and a pre-announced miracle of the sun in front of seventy thousand persons, she tried to wake the Church from slumber!

    • Robert A. Rowl;and

      The world was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Pope Pius XII and later by Pope John Paul II because the exact conditions were not met the first time, Sister Lucia said before she died that Mary had accepted the last consecration. Don’t blame the Pope for rejection of Mary’s wishes. Diabolic influence has been legion. The World Apostolate of Fatima has done a yeoman’s job of making known what Our Lady of the Rosary requested.
      Evangelization was almost destroyed because VCII eschewed doctrine and discipline. The first two generations after the council were not taught doctrine and became easy victims of evangelical Protestants or were misled by false ecumenism to believe it was no longer necessary to convert Protestants.

      • Templar

        “Don’t blame the Pope for rejection of Mary’s wishes.”

        Okay, but the message was primarily for the Pope, “If what I say to you is done, there will be peace.” Any of the Popes have it in their power to establish a Marian devotion throughout the world. Anyone else would have a hard time trying. I would say to you that diabolic influence takes over only when the Pope has been remiss in fulfilling Our Lady’s request. The Queen of Heaven keeps every promise and the devil is always under Her heel.

      • Robert A. Rowl;and

        You are wrong Templer. Thaq Pope has fulfilled our Lady’s request. On May 13, 1946 Pope Pius XII blessed a Pilgrim Virgin Statue at Fatima through a Cardinal legatw that began a pilgrimage to Lisbon and along the way many miraculous events took place. Pope Pius XII said of this statue: “In 1946, I crowned her Queen of the World… The folowing year, through the Pilgrim Virgin, she has gone forth as though to to claim her dominion…And the favors she performs along the way are such that we can hardly believe what we are seeing with our own eyes.” On May 13, 1967, the Golden Jubilee of Fatima, Pope Paul VI blessed 25 Pilgrim Virgin statues destined to become national statues. One of three statues by the original sculptor became the National Pilgrim Virgin statue for the U.S.A.to travel throughout each diocese.Monsignor Colgan, the founder of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima had this to say: “I consider this to be the greatest single event taking place in the United States todzay. It is not just a statue. It is the instrument of heavenly favors and conversions which deeply effect each diocese it visits…healing wounds, sowing love, increasing devotion, and often doubling the reception of the sacraments…In this visitation of the Mother of the Church to her churches where she awakens a glowing awareness of the True Presence of her Son and of our unity in him.” I suggest you learn more about Fatima before you cast more aspersions about Popes not fulfilling Our Lady’s request. Diabolic interference began at Fatima.

      • Robert A. Rowl;and

        Templar> They were all very effective acts to spread devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary as requested at Fatima, and continue to do so as I write. Have you by any chance read Father Andrew Apostoli’s book Fatima For Today? If you have not, you don’t know enough about Fatima.

    • rich

      hey brandon, i think u r on to something here. the other day i was thinking, is’nt something how he is being rediscovered!!! the fact that he had the number 1 hit show on tv for so many yr is today so incredible to imagine!!! i also think we have to use one of his methods on templar. templar what is really eating u. remember as a true catholic believer we stand on the rock[peter] and Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. r u calling Him a lier. stop worrying! did not the fall of russia without a shot being fired tell u something

      • Templar

        Hey Robert Rowland, what does blessing a statue have to do with establishing a devotion throughout the world? I know quite alot about Fatima while you need to brush up on apples and oranges.

  • Edward A. Hara

    For Archbishop Sheen to ask that woman if she had ever had an abortion was nothing less than the leading of the Holy Spirit. He did that more than once, even to a priest who had been helping himself to the collection plates. Sheen cornered him and got him to confess his sin.

    This is what we need more than ever now, holy bishops who fear no one and are led by the Holy Spirit.

  • Peggy

    Thanks for this insightful post.

    My husband, a former Anglican priest, and I are recent converts and we are rejoicing in the upcoming Year of Faith. In our experience of trying to explain our conversion I think the unspoken objection is often to Petrine authority. And I’m guessing that the strength of the resistance for many folk may be because of that individual’s experience of an abusive authority figure in their past.

    We are trying to find a balance between apologetics in word and deed.It takes such grace to try to name a hidden objection without seeming to dominate the conversation, and it may mean more to such objectors to be loved and served with gentleness of heart. May Jesus’ mercy and compassion guide us. And may we learn to explain Mary’s immaculate heart: her perseverance in giving only God’s word permission to become flesh in her life.

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