PEORIA, Ill. — Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the beloved American Catholic televangelist, took a major step closer to beatification and sainthood, as a team of Vatican experts verified that science cannot explain the reviving and complete healing of a stillborn baby that is credited to his intercession.
"Today is a significant step in the cause for the beatification and canonization of our beloved Fulton Sheen, a priest of Peoria and a son of the Heartland, who went on to change the world," Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., announced in a March 6 statement.
News that the seven-member board of medical advisers had unanimously approved the miracle to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints first reached the Diocese of Peoria early that Thursday morning.
"I got the first email shortly after 5am, and I tell you, I didn’t need a cup of coffee to get going," said Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation, which is handling Venerable Fulton Sheen’s cause.
"The fact that we have this unanimous decision from them, that there is no explanation [for this miracle], is a major shot in the arm for the cause," he said. "It moves the cause forward in a significant way."
The approval of the alleged miracle means that Archbishop Sheen has cleared the first hurdle toward beatification, but he still has more steps to go. The next step involves the Vatican’s board of theologians, who will scrutinize whether the miracle God worked can be attributed to the intercession of Archbishop Sheen alone and no other person. After that, the alleged miracle will undergo further review by a panel of cardinals, and then, finally, it will move along to the Pope.
An informed Vatican official said the miracle is "under study at present," but the Congregation for the Causes of Saints does not know when a final decision will be made.
"The theologians will primarily be looking at whether we can definitively attribute this miraculous healing to the intercession of Fulton J. Sheen," Msgr. Deptula said. "We believe that that is clearly demonstrated in the documents we have and the witness testimony."
Born Dead, Now Alive
Bonnie Engstrom, whose completely healthy son, James Fulton, is the stillborn baby allegedly healed through Archbishop Sheen’s intercession, told the Register the family was overjoyed with the news.
"Right now, I am just thrilled. We’re going to have steak for dinner; we’re going out for ice cream — we are just going to celebrate this. It is so exciting," said Engstom, a mother of six who also blogs at A Knotted Life.
Engstrom told the Register that she and her husband, Travis, had entrusted this particular pregnancy from the outset to the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. Throughout the pregnancy, all the signs pointed to a healthy, normal pregnancy. And then came the delivery, at their home in Goodfield, Ill., on Sept. 16, 2010: Their newborn had no pulse, and for the next 61 minutes, a nightmare unfolded.
Engstrom was going into shock. Travis called 911 and performed an emergency baptism before ambulance crews came to rush the baby to the hospital. Bonnie only had one thought.
"I remember sitting there, on my bedroom floor, saying Fulton Sheen’s name over and over again," she said. "That was about as close to a prayer I could get."
Her shock at the unfolding scene made it "impossible for me to think of anything else," shared Engstrom.
For 61 minutes, James Fulton Engstrom had no pulse and was medically dead, as medical professionals did their best but failed to resuscitate him. The only hope they had was to revive the infant long enough for Bonnie and Travis to hold him and say their brief hellos and good-byes. When the doctors finally gave up and started to certify death, Engstrom said, "that’s when his heart shot up to 148 beats per minute" — just like any healthy newborn.
Engstrom said she later learned that her husband had been fast at work starting a prayer chain in that difficult hour, asking others to pray — all over the world — specifically for Archbishop Sheen to intercede and ask God to save their little boy.
Astonished by James Fulton’s inexplicable return from death, the doctors told the Engstroms that their son must have suffered severe organ damage from the oxygen deprivation and would be severely disabled. Those predictions, however, never came to pass, and their baby was soon weaned off the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit machines and drugs.
"He’ll now be 4 in September," Engstrom said. "He’s a normal, healthy little boy — just cute and really happy."
Three Apparent Miracles
The case of the apparent miraculous healing of James Fulton Engstrom was actually one of three fully documented cases that the Diocese of Peoria had to choose from. However, for the beatification process, they could only forward one to the Vatican.
The first case involved a woman who had died on the operating table. She revived for no medically explicable reason. Msgr. Deptula said the second case involved a baby born with five or six life-threatening conditions and was miraculously cured. The third case was James Engstrom’s healing, which seemed the most incredible candidate out of all three.
But the alleged miracle in the case of the newborn Engstrom baby is also a "very significant" symbol for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization process.
"Fulton Sheen’s own ministry had such a pro-life ministry," Msgr. Deptula said. "He was one of the people very early on who warned this country was heading toward the sin of abortion and really promoted the idea of adopting unborn children spiritually and praying for them."
The Next Phase
If the alleged miracle gets the Pope’s approval, and Fulton Sheen is beatified, he will need another confirmed miracle for the canonization process. The miracle count resets, in a sense, and a new miracle must be recorded as happening after the beatification (although, as in the case of John XXIII, the Pope can waive the second-miracle requirement). Once there is a strong candidate, the process of scrutinizing the miracle repeats.
"My husband and I are praying for God’s will, and if it’s his will that Fulton Sheen be beatified because of what happened to our son, then that’s really exciting," Bonnie Engstrom said.
Still, the alleged miracle’s passing such a major test has generated a wave of grateful enthusiasm all over the U.S. Church. Bishop Jenky, whose Peoria Diocese is where the saint first lived and grew up, called the news "a good reason to rejoice."
The Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., which Archbishop Sheen briefly led from 1966 to 1969, also chimed in its agreement.
"This is joyous news," said Doug Mandelaro, spokesman for Rochester Bishop Salvatore Matano. "We are so proud that this man, who inspired millions, who touched the hearts and souls of so many — and who served as our bishop — is being thus honored by the Church."
Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a vice postulator for Archbishop Sheen’s cause until 2008, was ordained in 1967 by then-Bishop Sheen himself. Father Apostoli said Archbishop Sheen is the right saint for the times.
"Pope John Paul II told us twice to hurry up with this case," he said. "Bishop Sheen was a moral force in the country. People listened to him, even ecumenically. He was speaking in synagogues at a time when we didn’t know the meaning of the word ecumenism."
Archbishop Sheen became most widely known in the U.S. beginning in the 1930s, when he became a popular radio personality; his ministry later moved to television. His Emmy Award-winning weekly TV program, Life Is Worth Living, eventually reached 30 million viewers in the United States.
Father Apostoli noted that the highest percentages of religious groups that listened to him were first, Jews; second, Protestants; and, third, Catholics.
"A lot respected him, which was tremendous," he said.
Model of Modern Holiness
Archbishop Sheen is an excellent model for how the Church needs to conduct the New Evangelization "using new and modern tools," said Msgr. Deptula.
"No one is a better example of that than Fulton Sheen. He captured the attention of a generation," he said. "That’s the kind of evangelist we need today."
For Bonnie Engstrom, Archbishop Fulton Sheen inspires her to become a saint, especially because she relates well to him: They’re both born and raised in the small towns of central Illinois (just a 20-minute drive apart) that look like typical small-town America.
It’s the humble side of this great man’s roots, she said, that gives her great confidence in his example.
"It just makes holiness seem so much more attainable — that I can do something great for Christ, even though I live in a really small town, and my life can seem so basic."