September 9, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: The 1950s saw a healthy Church

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

The 1950s might have been the healthiest period of the Church in its history, certainly its modern history.

Pius XII was still pope until his death on Oct. 9, 1958, although he had been sick for the last four years of his papacy. Because of efforts to defame him long after his death, we forget how popular he was, and how people paid attention to his 41 encyclicals.

After he died, he was highly praised by dignitaries everywhere, especially by Jews, like the chief rabbi of Rome and prime minister of Israel, for his role in saving Jews during World War II. His funeral procession was so large that Cardinal Angelo Roncalli wrote in his diary on Oct. 11 that probably no Roman emperor had enjoyed such a triumph.

In the United States, the 1950s experienced the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower from January 1953 to January 1961. It was a time of peace and prosperity that the country had never experienced before, and hasn’t since. Catholics took advantage of that in ways that we can hardly imagine today.

Catholics benefited from the G.I. Bill after World War II that made it possible for more of them to go to college than ever before. By the 1950s, they were entering professions and beginning to be part of the mainstream of society, but they hadn’t quite begun to move from cities to the suburbs yet. So parishes grew, especially because of the baby boom that occurred after the war.

Most Catholic men belonged to the Holy Name Society or similar organizations, which had monthly Communion-breakfasts. Most Catholic women joined the Holy Rosary Sodality or similar organizations. Most parishes had Catholic schools which most Catholic children attended and which were staffed by nuns. There were plenty of priests to lead the parishes.

Catholic periodicals saw high circulations. Two national newspapers, Our Sunday Visitor published in Huntington, Ind., and The Register published in Denver, each had circulations approaching 1 million.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was the most popular man on television from 1952 to 1957. His show, “Life Is Worth Living,” held the highest ratings during prime time on a major network, and he won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Personality.

Bishop Sheen won hundreds of converts to Catholicism, including celebrities like Clare Booth Luce, Henry Ford II and Loretta Young. He also raised millions of dollars for the missions through his “day job” as director of the American branch of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

This was the time, too, when families were saying the “Family Rosary” together. Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton, who coined the adage “the family that prays together stays together,” was conducting Rosary Rallies in dioceses across the country. Parishes were encouraged to get families to pledge to recite the family rosary—and families did.

Father Peyton wasn’t successful only in the United States. His rallies spread to countries throughout the world. More than 20 million people attended the rallies as part of diocesan Rosary Crusades in countries throughout Latin America.

It was an optimistic Church that entered the 1960s. Things were about to change. †

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