PEORIA, Ill. — Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen received a second major affirmative in less than four months in the step to beatification. On June 17, the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., again heard from the Vatican that its commission of seven theologians examining a reported miracle through Archbishop Sheen’s intercession confirmed it as genuine and supernatural.
Previously in March, the Vatican’s panel of seven medical experts unanimously affirmed that the reported miracle credited to his intercession is genuine.
“The commission met that afternoon in Rome, and after their deliberations, our postulator called me to deliver the good news to Bishop Jenky,” said Msgr. Stanley Deptula of this latest step in the beatification process. He is executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation in Peoria.
“I am delighted by the news,” Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, president of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation, told the Register via email, “and I encourage everyone to continue praying and offering support for the promotion of the cause.”
The mood in the diocese was immediately euphoric as word got out its native son advanced another step closer to being officially declared “Blessed.”
None were more excited than Travis and Bonnie Engstrom, who live in the Peoria area. Their son James Fulton was the recipient of this miracle through the intercession of Bishop Fulton Sheen.
James Fulton, who will be 4 on Sept. 16, was stillborn at his birth at home. He was rushed to the hospital, with no signs of life, where medical professionals tried every possibility to revive and save him. With no pulse or sign of life after 61 minutes, and doctors ready to record his time of death, James came to life.
Every minute from the start of the problematic birth, the Engstroms and their family and friends kept imploring Archbishop Sheen for his intercession for a miraculous restoration to life and health for James Fulton, who they named after the well-known bishop.
Even after James astounded the medical professionals by reviving, they told the Engstroms they believed he had massive organ damage and would die soon. When he did not, doctors said he would be severely handicapped.
But James turned out the healthy and normal child he is today.
“The tribunal happened over two years ago, so we’ve been waiting for a while for this,” Bonnie Engstrom said joyfully after the announcement. “Every step that affirms what I already believe in my heart is really exciting. We live with James, and we know what he is like and what the doctors said he was supposed to be like. We know God did something amazing with our son.”
Bonnie Engstrom explained how this newly approved step to beatification now affects more than her family.
“It’s really cool how the whole Church can celebrate this together,” she said. “People all over the world will get excited, because people all over the world loved Fulton Sheen.”
She plans to continue promoting devotion to him and supporting the cause for his canonization.
People are interested hearing about “the miracle baby,” she said. “It’s a beautiful and powerful story about God. I also want people to hear about Fulton Sheen. Lots of people remember him, but a lot of people need to know about him.”
Her method of sharing about his life? “Definitely through my blog (A Knotted Life) and through speaking, I have tried to introduce him to a whole new generation of people who have no idea who he is but who should know.”
‘An Astounding Pro-Life Sign’
Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal and host of the EWTN weekly show Sunday Night Prime, certainly is elated by the news. He is the vice postulator for the cause for canonization of Archbishop Sheen. In 1967, Father Apostoli was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Sheen.
He said this week’s Vatican announcement “shows us to thank God for the miracle given the unanimous judgment of the seven theologians. It backs up what we have gained from other evidence and widespread testimonies that Bishop Sheen does enjoy an intercessory role in heaven.”
Citing the previous judgment of the doctors who found no human or natural explanation for how James Fulton Engstrom came back to life, Father Apostoli commented: “This was a very significant event because the child was not sick but dead for 61 minutes, so Bishop Sheen has a major role of intercession,” he said. “This is without doubt an astounding pro-life sign of this pro-life miracle. This intervention to bring the child back to life is like the epitome of pro-life.”
Father Apostoli pointed out how Fulton Sheen often stressed pro-life issues, talking against abortion and speaking in favor of life and the family, and in a famous 1952 comment asserting that if we accept contraception, then abortion, euthanasia and violence will follow.
“He was very prophetic about that,” noted Father Apostoli.
Along the same lines, he believes the approval so far indicates that “God is honoring this holy man who was very faithful in living our Catholic faith and spreading it. I think this is an indication of certain greatness Sheen has, because his life and teaching has touched so many.”
Because as vice postulator for the cause he has dealt with many reported cases involving people’s intercession “for unborn children in the womb and also newborns and little children,” he further stresses that people learn Bishop Sheen had a simple prayer he formulated, which has become widespread.
Called the “spiritual adoption of the child,” the prayer said daily for nine months is: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I love you very much. I beg you to spare the life of the unborn child that I have spiritually adopted who is in danger of abortion.”
As administrator at the Archbishop Sheen Foundation in Peoria, Julie Enzenberger also hears the various intercessions and favors people report they have received.
“There is such an overwhelming devotion to Fulton Sheen out there,” she said.
Naturally, she was elated at the latest progress for his beatification.
“Fulton Sheen has definitely changed my life,” explained Enzenberger.
“He’s taught me a lot of patience,” she affirmed. “I really look at him as the model of holiness.”
Added Enzenberger, “I truly think he’s the saint we need in America today because of the secularism in this country. [St.] John Paul II said it best when he said to Fulton Sheen, ‘You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.’”
The news was also especially exciting for Sister Emmanuel of the Franciscan Sisters of John the Baptist, who works at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum in Peoria.
“We’ve been praying for this,” she said. “This cause is something most people don’t get to experience in their lifetime, and we get to be in the center of it. So it’s a blessing to be able to serve this way.”
Her community, based in Peoria, developed a special devotion to Fulton Sheen long before the cause opened, after they learned of him from Father Apostoli during a retreat.
“We thought because Bishop Sheen was from our diocese and home, he would be a good patron,” Sister Emmanuel explained.
After the cause got under way and the museum opened, Bishop Jenky asked the sisters to work and serve at it.
“We picked Bishop Sheen, and Bishop Sheen picked us,” Sister Emmanuel said with excitement in her voice.
Her community’s Eucharistic Holy Hour every morning was inspired by Bishop Sheen from his own promise at his ordination to spend one hour a day in Eucharistic adoration. The sisters offer theirs for priests and seminarians.
A Seminarian’s Story
One of them is Nic Wilson, who just completed his first year as a seminarian for the Peoria Diocese. Wilson discovered his vocation while serving in Fulton Sheen’s parish church, St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is a block away from the museum.
As an altar server hearing others talking about Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay, Wilson picked it up, then discovered his family had several more books by Bishop Sheen at home.
“I really embraced Sheen as I was finishing high school,” Wilson said. “I realized what a special thing it was that we had Fulton Sheen come from the Diocese of Peoria. I grew in [interest in] Fulton Sheen as I read more and served more at the cathedral where he was an altar server.”
Wilson also likes the fact that he graduated on the 100th anniversary year of Fulton Sheen’s graduation from the same high school, which now is merged with other schools.
Today, with the latest news of this next step of approval toward beatification, Wilson sees what it means for everyone, not just himself.
“Around here, there’s an atmosphere of joy and enthusiasm for Fulton Sheen,” he said, “and it intensifies when a millstone is reached.”
The next milestone would come if Pope Francis, who has the last word, approves the miracle for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification. Then the next step would require yet another miracle for his canonization — a new miracle and not one of those already fully documented by the cause.
Msgr. Deptula noted that, “should Fulton Sheen be beatified, we will redouble our efforts, and if it’s God’s will, God will manifest his will through another miracle event that will happen after the beatification.”
For now, he said, this present step to beatification becomes a reminder that “here are more reasons to pray in thanksgiving and to pray in perseverance.”
As for the possibility of holding Bishop Sheen’s beatification ceremony in Peoria, Msgr. Deptula shared, “This is something even kind of quietly we’ve been dreaming about for so many years.”
He pointed out that St. John Paul II held all beatifications in Rome, but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI restored the more ancient practice of holding them at the local level.
“Pope Francis has so far continued in that tradition [by Benedict],” observed Msgr. Deptula. “So it would be wonderful to hold the beatification here in Bishop Sheen’s hometown.”
The Engstroms believe so, too. “For us and for anyone in the Diocese of Peoria, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Bonnie Engstrom said. “You don’t get to a beatification in your hometown just any day. Even if we had no connection with the miracle, we would be beating down that door to get into the Mass.”
And if so, surely little James Fulton will be at the head of the line to see Archbishop Sheen — the priest who brought Christ and his Blessed Mother to countless millions around the world — named "Blessed."
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.