Documentary strives to reintroduce Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen to Catholics young and old
FORT WORTH — Decades before Facebook, YouTube, and social media influencers, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen transformed media and the spreading of the Gospel first through his NBC Radio show “The Catholic Hour” and later his TV show “Life is Worth Living.”
In 1953 — the same year Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died and Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England — Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in television and frequently outperformed Frank Sinatra’s viewer rating numbers.
Millions of TV fans, Catholic and non-Catholic, watched Bishop Sheen’s show and read his books, but his popularity also attracted the FBI’s attention. Under J. Edgar Hoover the FBI had directed scrutiny in Bishop Sheen’s direction since at least 1943.
FBI documents regarding Bishop Sheen declassified in recent years provide much of the narrative for a new documentary, “Follow That Bishop,” which received its world premiere showing April 17 at Nolan Catholic High School.
Bishop Sheen’s outspokenness against Stalin and communism proved controversial and stirred FBI interest.
“With World War II at its height, the U.S. and USSR were allies in the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany,” the documentary’s narrator intones. “It would be several years before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his anti-communist crusade, and, in the early 1940s, it was still unpatriotic to criticize the USSR. Something Bishop Fulton Sheen did repeatedly and unashamedly.”
Bishop Sheen, via TV clips in “Follow That Bishop,” warns of threats to freedom and liberty within and outside of America and calls the U.S. very dear to his heart.
“God made this country for serious purposes,” Bishop Sheen says at one point. “Let the name of God re-inspire those purposes.”
Bishop Sheen, according to one commenter in the documentary, condemned all forms of totalitarianism while remaining equally outspoken and passionate in his support of democracy and the principles underlying it.
Our rights, Bishop Sheen insisted, derive from God.
Nonetheless, according to the documentary, FBI agents and many others at the time considered Bishop Sheen’s critiques of communism as seditious propaganda dangerous to U.S. government strategy.
Bureau agents and Hoover, after much effort on their parts, ultimately concluded that, far from a radical, Bishop Sheen led a largely uneventful day-to-day existence of study and preparation, but did harbor weaknesses for chocolate and angel food cake, and may or may not have exceeded the speed limit on several occasions.
Such “shocking revelations” led to a reversal of FBI attitudes best left to the documentary to reveal.
“Follow That Bishop” elsewhere delves into Bishop Sheen’s gift for communication, his humor, his devotion to the Blessed Mother, as well as his lasting legacy and the ongoing campaigns calling for his sainthood.
Bishop Sheen, upon receiving his Emmy Award, thanked his four script writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
“Follow That Bishop” is one of several documentaries produced by Rome Reports, a Rome-based international TV news agency covering Pope Francis and the Vatican.
Filmmaker, journalist, and Rome Reports CEO Antonio Olivie said the uncovered FBI files on Bishop Sheen provided the documentary’s hook and added drama to the larger story of the archbishop’s life and impact.
“The FBI files give the drama and through that drama we hope to reach the younger people who may not know much, or anything, about Bishop Sheen,” Olivie said. “That is our big point in making this film. Older people who remember Bishop Sheen will be happy with this documentary, I hope and think, but our goal is to reach the younger, new generations with this exciting and amazing story.”
Diocesan Vicar General Jonathan Wallis called the night a great opportunity for the diocese to honor and celebrate Bishop Sheen's legacy.
“He was an evangelist for Jesus Christ, our Mother Mary, and for the Church,” Fr. Wallis said.
ReelZeal, an internet TV platform of Catholic content, partnered with the Diocese of Fort Worth’s Advancement Foundation to coordinate the world premiere of “Follow That Bishop” in Fort Worth.
Don Shotland of ReelZeal summed up Bishop Sheen’s messages as timely and timeless, and said the documentary brings the bishop back to the public eye and highlights the fact that Bishop Sheen’s statements and messages from decades back still apply to modern times.
John Alves of ReelZeal added that Nolan was chosen for the premiere in part because Fort Worth Star-Telegram founder Amon G. Carter donated the land the school sits on.
“His one and only daughter became a Catholic because of the work of Bishop Sheen,” Alves said.