PEORIA, Ill. — Ten years after Pope John Paul II declared him a Servant of God, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated a decree June 28 declaring Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen “Venerable.”
This, the second step in the process of the cause for canonization, recognizes that Archbishop Sheen lived a life of heroic virtue and ensures that the next steps may continue.
“We are so happy that Pope Benedict XVI has declared him ‘Venerable,’” said Peoria, Ill., Bishop Daniel Jenky. “This means that Archbishop Sheen displayed virtues that others can emulate. He provides an example that all the Church needs to imitate in these days.”
“The declaration upholds Archbishop Sheen as a model for the rest of us to be better Christians,” noted Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation.
El Paso, Ill.-born Archbishop Sheen (1895-1979) was ordained a priest in 1919 and served as a parish priest for the Diocese of Peoria before being appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York in 1951. In addition, he served as national director of the Manhattan-based Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1966, he was named bishop of Rochester, N.Y.
“Because of his efforts, his labors and his love for the Church, I see the great fruits around the world,” said Father Andrew Small, a priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies (formerly the Society for the Propagation of the Faith), the position formerly held by Archbishop Sheen. “All of his works, his books and television work he put into the missions — 1,150 dioceses, 9,000 clinics, 10,000 orphanages, 12,000 schools and the 80,000 seminarians we train around the world.”
A consummate communicator, Archbishop Sheen hosted the evening radio program The Catholic Hour for 20 years, and his Emmy award-winning Life Is Worth Living (1951-1957) and The Fulton Sheen Program (1961-1968) became some of the most-watched television shows airing at the time. He authored numerous books and is often referred to as one of the first televangelists.
“He harnessed the new media of his day — radio and television — and used those tools to lead others to Christ,” said Msgr. Deptula. “We can look to him to see how to bring the eternal news of Jesus Christ to our modern world.”
As important as his works, Bishop Jenky also noted Archbishop Sheen’s life of holiness.
“One of his greatest gifts was his example of prayer, preaching and teaching — especially his prayer before the Eucharist,” said Bishop Jenky. “His life of prayer began as a seminarian. As an associate pastor of a parish in Peoria, he had a huge impact on bringing that parish back to life. He said that miracle came from the time he spent on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”
“He constantly preached that, even for the most hardworking priest, the most important time would be the time he spends in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,” said Bishop Jenky. “I can’t speak of anyone who spoke more eloquently about this, and he lived it every day of his life.”
“Every day we receive testimony of little miracles that demonstrate how Archbishop Sheen continues to touch people’s lives,” said Msgr. Deptula.
For the purposes of Archbishop Sheen’s canonization, the foundation assembled three fully documented alleged miracles, which were sent to the Vatican. The foundation was asked to select one of the three for a full canonical investigation.
“The one we chose involved a baby who was stillborn in September 2010 in a small town outside of Peoria,” explained Msgr. Deptula. “The child went without any signs of life for 61 minutes and was brought from home to St. Francis Hospital in Peoria. As soon as the parents knew there was a problem, they turned to Fulton Sheen. The doctors did all they could, and the baby came back to life. At his baptism, the parents gave the child the middle name Fulton. Today, the child is a healthy 2-year-old, with no signs of any lasting damage.”
According to Msgr. Deptula, the paperwork regarding the miracle was sent to Rome in December. During the investigation of the alleged miracle, it will be researched by canonists, a medical team, theologians and bishops before being presented to the Pope.
Father Andrew Apostoli, vice postulator of the cause for canonization, noted that many of the alleged miracles involve infants.
“In general, he seems to have a powerful influence with infants,” said Father Apostoli, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. “At least four of the cases we were working on involved the preborn and newborn infants.”
Father Apostoli said this wasn’t surprising.
“Archbishop Sheen was a great promoter of life and had advocated the ‘Prayer to Adopt an Unborn Child,’” said Father Apostoli. “I wonder if God didn’t give him a special ability to intercede for unborn life.”
Another of the three strongest cases involved an alleged 2006 Ohio miracle, investigated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It involved the healing of an infant born with numerous life-threatening illnesses.
Msgr. Deptula said that the Illinois case was chosen because it was “tighter.”
“When the child was born, he was dead,” said Msgr. Deptula. “We chose it because of the clarity of the medical documents. Should the Vatican or any of the doctors indicate a problem with the case, we hold the other one in our back pocket.”
The next step in Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s cause is the ongoing Vatican investigation, particularly into the alleged miracle.
“If the miracle is authenticated, we could celebrate his beatification,” said Msgr. Deptula. “We never presume. Only God makes saints.”
In celebration of the declaration of Fulton Sheen as “Venerable,” the Diocese of Peoria is planning a Mass of Thanksgiving, presided by Bishop Jenky, on Sept. 9 at 10:30am at the Cathedral of St. Mary’s.
Msgr. Deptula noted that Archbishop Sheen’s cause enjoys tremendous support around the world because he was so widely known. As a result, he speculated that it’s possible that the next step could happen more quickly. “We might see the next steps progress rather quickly,” said Msgr. Deptula. “There is need for a lot of prayers and donations to keep the cause going.”
Tim Drake is the Register's senior writer. He blogs at NCRegister.com.