In the 20th century, there were three great American televangelists who brought the Gospel to millions through a medium that, as early as 1957, Pius XII recognized could “contribute a great deal to the religious life.” One was Fulton Sheen, a man so captivating, intelligent, and humorous that his simple chalkboard could outperform I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show night after night. Another was Mother Angelica, who was not only great on camera but in three decades would create the largest religious media corporation in the world. The third may surprise you—Fred Rogers, the soft-spoken native of Western Pennsylvania who hosted a low-budget children’s program on PBS. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?is the first major documentary about this saintly figure, whose true significance was only felt once this world was without his presence. The film doesn’t offer any striking revelations, but it allows the viewer to contemplate Fred’s philosophy and how very, very needed it is in 2018.
Director Morgan Neville does not provide much of a plot, but rather strings together in mostly chronological order a number of important themes and ideas starting with Rogers’ early days on The Children Corner in the 1950s to his death in 2003. Fred entered the seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. However, he changed course after watching people being hit in the face with pies on television, and resolved to create meaningful programming. He would bring together three important elements—his evangelical fervor as an ordained Christian minister, years of studying under prominent child psychologists, and experience with multiple aspects of television production—to create Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on PBS stations across the nation for more than 30 years.
The show’s biggest strength came from the heart of Fred himself. “I’ve always felt that I don’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child,” he said of his early days. He simply invited children to slow down for 30 minutes and learn something about the world and themselves.
One of the most common questions about Fred was put quite bluntly during an interview in the 1980s. “Are you for real?” the reporter smiles. Fred only smiles back. Unfortunately, American culture seems to relish in de-mythologizing our heroes, whether its Bob Ross’ military career, Billy Graham’s supposed anti-Semitism, or Mother Teresa’s hospice conditions. Fred was no exception; there were urban legends about him being a sniper in Vietnam, that he wore long sweaters to hide his many tattoos, or even that he was gay. Behind this gossip lies an insidious vulnerability: if he was not who he said he was, then Idon’t have to listen to him when he tells me to change. Good people are evidence holiness is achievable, and that is not acceptable to many.
Read more at Catholic World Report.