VATICAN CITY — Andrea Ambrosi has overseen and completed the causes of hundreds of holy men and women in the Church, leading to their recognition as blesseds or saints.

Few have been as compelling as that of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

“His cause is one of the most interesting that we’re dealing with,” said Ambrosi. “There’s enormous interest in this cause on all levels.”

The cause advanced this summer when a report containing a miracle was signed in late July by Church officials. The miracle allegedly took place in 1999 and involved a 72-year-old woman in Champaign, Ill., who was miraculously healed of a life-threatening tear in her main pulmonary artery after undergoing lung surgery.

Her husband prayed for two hours, continually invoking Sheen’s name. The woman is still alive today.

Ambrosi, postulator of the cause, has now sent the 500-page report and supporting documents to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for review. The dossier also contains details of another reported miracle of a gravely ill baby boy in Pennsylvania, born five years ago, who recovered after his parents prayed for Sheen’s intercession.

Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal in New York and vice postulator of the cause, said he knows of at least four other claims of miraculous intercession by the archbishop. These discoveries give “great impetus” to the cause, Ambrosi said.

One confirmed miracle is needed for a cause to proceed towards beatification, and another miraculous event occurring after the beatification is required for canonization.

Opened in 2002, the cause of Archbishop Sheen — who was born in El Paso, Ill., in 1895 and died in 1979 — has captured the imagination of many Catholic Americans. Not only is he remembered as one of the first televangelists, whose program Life Is Worth Living became one of the most watched in the United States in the 1950s, but should he be canonized he would become the first native-born American male to be named a saint.

However, although the recent developments advance his cause significantly, Ambrosi says there is still some way to go.

“The main part of the investigation into the archbishop’s life — his virtues, reputation and sanctity — have been concluded,” Ambrosi said. “We’ve interviewed half of the witnesses and now need to conclude the next phase of the investigation.”

He predicted all documentation pertaining to the cause would be complete in 18 months, after which it will be sent to Rome for examination.

Media Evangelist

It was in 1930 that Fulton Sheen began his pioneering evangelism through the media with a weekly Sunday night radio broadcast, The Catholic Hour. At its peak, the program attracted an audience of 4 million listeners.

In 1951, with the advent of television, he was to attract an even greater audience and bring a number of prominent public figures into the Church, including writer Heywood Broun, politician Clare Boothe Luce and automaker Henry Ford II.

Life Is Worth Living was so popular that he was competing with ratings giants like Frank Sinatra and comedian Milton Berle, prompting Berle to joke: “He uses old material, too.”

Two months before Archbishop Sheen’s death, on a papal visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II embraced him saying, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.”

Msgr. Stewart Swetland, director of homiletics and pre-theology at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., said at the signing of the canonization documents in July that the way Archbishop Sheen delivered the truths of the faith continues to have a great impact.

“I am constantly amazed that, even with the great increases in the sophistication of media technologies, so many still enjoy listening to or watching his recordings from the 1950s and 1960s,” he told the Peoria Journal Star. “Fulton Sheen is one of the shining gems of the diocese [of Peoria].”

The archbishop’s reputation stretches beyond the shores of America. He studied theology in Paris, Louvain and Rome, and he taught theology in the 1920s at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, England.

“He was well known in London among the cloistered nuns of Tyburn Convent and at St. Patrick’s Church in Soho,” said Martin Shaw, Europe director of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. “He’s an excellent role model: a man of great selflessness and great faith who lived the message.”

Shaw said that one of his most profound acts was fulfilling a personal vow at his ordination in 1919 to spend one hour in adoration each day. “It was something he held himself to for 60 years,” he said.

Questions

Still, it may not be all smooth sailing for Archbishop’s Sheen cause, according to historian Thomas Reeves, author of America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. While Reeves said that the late archbishop was “at all times a loyal son of the Church,” he also pointed out that Archbishop Sheen also engaged in a notable quarrel with Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.

Archbishop Sheen was appointed an auxiliary bishop in New York in 1951, and served as bishop of Rochester, N.Y., from 1966-1969.

Other issues that merit Vatican examination, Reeves suggested, are unanswered questions of Archbishop Sheen’s handling of the money he earned as a media celebrity and the “bogus degree” that he received from a university in Rome.

Said Reeves, “This will all have to be cleared up.”

As with other causes, it could be a decade or more before the Vatican decides whether Sheen should be canonized. But Ambrosi is confident that the miracles recorded to date are likely to be sufficient to further his cause at least to beatification.

Said Ambrosi, “Were they not to have been judged authentic enough, an investigation wouldn’t have been carried out.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.