God has friends in places little connected with Him in the public mind. Would you believe an American proposed for official sainthood whose prime time television show brought him an emmy — for talking about God yet?
TV star Fulton John Sheen’s heroic virtue was recognized with the title Venerable in June 2012. You know well by now that it is God’s approval through a miracle that permits a beatification. In this Cause miracles seem in good supply. So beatification could come soon. When it does Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen may have the distinction of ending up with not just one shrine but two.
Not only a widely read author, the native of El Paso, Illinois, was famous for Life Is Worth Living, his television show seen by millions when there were only three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) in the United States and the whole country seemed to park itself before “the tube” nightly. Although one of television’s biggest stars, full of personal charisma, with a sense of the dramatic that could make viewers weep, as well as wit and a sense of comedy that evoked bubbles of laughter, Sheen was also revered among those, like Apostoli, who looked past the show for his spiritual attributes: primarily his deep love of Christ exemplified, among other ways, by his unfailingly spending an hour a day — he called it a Holy Hour — in prayer before the eucharistic Christ. Apostoli says that when he saw Sheen, he wanted to be like him — not the celebrity aspect but “the man of God.”
It was Billy Graham — no slouch himself at communicating Christ — who said, “Sheen was the greatest communicator of the twentieth century.” Looking at Sheen’s background, this is surprising. When he started his educational path to the priesthood, the successful business-man’s son’s potential for scholarship, not for communicating to huge groups of ordinary people, was what drew attention. Sent to be educated at some of the world’s foremost schools, the University of Louvain in Belgium, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Angelicum in Rome, he was the first American at Louvain to win the prestigious Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy.
He came back to America and, after three years in his home diocese, began to teach theology and philosophy at Washington DC’s Catholic University as an educationally sophisticated intellectual of proven brilliance. Yet he would become known for the ability — often by coining witty and pithy sayings — “to explain spirituality and the Catholic faith in ways that everyone could understand.” And he did it first on radio — so it wasn’t his striking good looks that had people hanging on his words. That was as early as 1930, when he began a Sunday-night broadcast called The Catholic Hour. Sponsored by the Church, for twenty years he taught Catholicism that way. From 1951 he “starred” on television.
On TV he taught Life and why it is worth living — a subject which led to God through every topic imaginable. In that anti-Catholic era, 1951 to 1957, there he was before millions, mostly non-Catholics, in full — some would say exaggerated — Catholic regalia: black clerical garb, a large crucifix on his chest, and a big magenta cape flowing behind him. In down-to-earth, humorous talks about life’s basics, aimed at people of every faith or none, his soft-sell approach won friends for Christ and the Church, his converts too many to detail.
Twenty-four years after his death and burial at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a bishop of New York, his Cause was opened in September 2003 by the Peoria Diocese.
Already in the summer of 2006, when the Cause for this Servant of God was only open three years, there were two cures of a magnitude to potentially qualify as official miracles — and definitely, in any case, worth sending to Rome. Following ceremonies in Peoria and in Pittsburgh, for each of the healings respectively, the Cause’s Rome-based postulator, Andréa Ambrosi, present at both, hand carried them to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The first healing recipient was Therese Kearney of Champaign, Illinois, then in her early seventies. During a surgery in 1999, Mrs. Kearney suffered a tear in her pulmonary artery. Told his wife would probably not make it, Frank Kearney, a long-time admirer of the media star priest, sought Sheen’s prayer intercession. (Sheen at this time had been dead twenty years.) His wife lived, and this was considered something beyond what medicine could have done. The couple died in 2006, seven years later, he in February and she, at age 79, in September. But the healing had already survived the diocesan-level vetting. Details of her cure — over five hundred pages of medical data and testimonies by the witnesses, who included the doctors involved, a nurse, a priest, and family members — had been assembled under Msgr. Richard Soseman, as delegate of the bishop of Peoria. Packed and sealed in a witnessed ceremony, just five days after Therese Kearney’s death, the records were officially turned over to the postulator for transport to Rome.
Postulator Ambrosi made a second stop for similar ceremonies in Pittsburgh. There he picked up a thousand pages of meticulous testimony and medical records on the cure of a seriously ill infant boy whose family belong to the Ukrainian Diocese of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio. The Catholic Ukrainian diocese is small and without either the personnel or financial resources to conduct the necessary investigation of a cure. The Pittsburgh diocese took over for them. While details of the infant’s cure were withheld, Fr. Ambrosi said only that the baby was “gravely ill” when his parents sought Archbishop Sheen’s prayer intercession. Vice-postulator Fr. Andrew Apostoli has said the infant had three life-threatening conditions, one of which was the worst form of sepsis. The fact of this being a cure from God, not from medical means, was supported by the main doctors involved in the case. “All of them,” Ambrosi concluded, “recognized that a force superior to their medical science intervened for his [the infant’s] recovery.”
About four years later, in 2010, another infant is also said to have received a miracle, this one in Peoria. The facts actually made public, with the cooperation of the family, when Sheen was named Venerable in 2012 show the devotion Sheen can inspire.
Bonnie Engstrom and her family live in a small central-Illinois town not that far from El Paso, Illinois, the little town where Sheen was born. Bonnie had a special feeling for then Servant of God Sheen, she explains, precisely because he was “born in this small insignificant town, El Paso, followed God’s will in his life, and became a great instrument of the Lord.” To Bonnie, this showed “it doesn’t matter where you’re from.” She and her husband, Travis, agreed that the child of her current pregnancy would be James Fulton, the middle name honoring Sheen. Throughout this pregnancy, as she went about her daily chores as wife and mother, Bonnie also sought the prayer support of the dead TV-star evangelist.
But during James Fulton’s birth at the family home that September (2010), Fulton Sheen did not actually seem to be proving much of a friend: a previously undetected knot in the umbilical cord became so tight during delivery that the baby was born blue, without pulse or breath. Mother and the stillborn baby were rushed by ambulance to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
Engstrom remembers chanting Fulton Sheen’s name over and over as a team of doctors and nurses worked on the baby. It seemed fruitless, and the ER group prepared to pronounce the Engstrom infant dead when suddenly his heart began to beat.
Today, apparently no worse for his harrowing birth because he is developing normally, James — along with his mother — is now a kind of star himself since mother and child are playing a role in their heavenly friend’s ascent to official sainthood. On the other hand, the small-town tyke is also, to his family’s joy, just like his older siblings.
As for Bonnie Engstrom, she finds her faith affirmed that God does work miracles. “Every milestone [in development] he has crossed was a milestone we thought he wouldn’t achieve,” she says with a kind of awe. The miracle of her stillborn baby’s not only returning to life but being undamaged has touched her in other ways too. One is that the mother of what today is considered a large family appreciates her vocation “a lot more.” She says when she sees her children do something, such as James, who should be dead, shaking toys at her, trying to be cute, she is able “to appreciate all those little moments more.”
Time will tell which of the cures being studied in Rome, this one, the two others, or one yet to come, proves the beatification miracle. There are other cures not chosen for Rome, apparently. Vice-postulator Fr. Andrew Apostoli notes that an extraordinary number of cases where people report the archbishop’s intercession involve infants.
Thinking about these and the elderly woman’s or the Ohio infant’s cures, if neither of the latter becomes the beatification miracle, two physician-proclaimed miracles that took place in our time and maybe not that far away from where you live may just fade away. Will the day ever come, for instance, in this new climate in which miracle recipients often have to be or choose to be protected, when you and I learn the details that caused more than one doctor to credit something beyond what medical skill can do for saving the seriously ill Ohio baby? Even James’s survival — in spite of being in the news — could one day soon be remembered by those close to him alone. Only one thing is sure: each of these events is an example of the miracles most of us will never be aware of and yet, as miracle “middleman” Zbig Chojnowski puts it, are going on all around us.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a chapter in P. Treece’s Nothing Short of a Miracle, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
image: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram / Wikimedia Commons