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.