From The Boy Who Lived to Beatification: Fulton Sheen’s First Miracle

“Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen,” prayed Bonnie Engstrom. She had just given birth, and her baby boy was dead, his umbilical cord tied tightly around his neck.

He did not breathe; his heart did not beat. His leg was necrotic from a misfired epinephrine shot intended to revive him. Sixty-one minutes after delivery, his heart still did not beat, and the monitor showed nothing but “pulseless electric activity.” He could not be revived, and the ER doctors turned away to call the time of death. 

Still his parents prayed to Fulton Sheen. Then the baby’s heart began to beat.  

His mother and father believe it was the intercession of Fulton Sheen that brought him back to life – not only back to life, but back to health. The child, James Fulton Engstrom, shows no physical or mental defects from the hour he spent among the dead nine years ago.

James Fulton Engstrom (photo courtesy of Bonnie Engstrom; used with permission)

On Friday, Pope Francis decreed that it was indeed through Fulton Sheen’s intercession that James Engstrom was healed after his parents prayed to Sheen for help.

Sheen, the telegenic archbishop known for his groundbreaking evangelization via TV and radio, will now be beatified — the final step before he is declared a saint. 

Fulton Sheen in 1956. Photo by ABC Radio [Public domain]
The cause for Sheen’s beatification was put on hold after the archdiocese of Peoria and the archdiocese of New York both claimed his body. A five-year legal tussle ensued, and it wasn’t until June of 2019 that New York renounced its wish to keep Sheen’s body at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Weeks later, his remains were moved to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, and the cause for his beatification immediately moved forward. On July 6, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints promulgated the decree approving Sheen’s miracle

Beatification is formal recognition that a person is in heaven, and it means that we may now pray to him for intercession. Those who are beatified may be referred to as “Blessed [Name];” and they may be venerated publicly “in places closely associated with his or her life and ministry.”

With his beatification, Sheen is now one step closer to sainthood. Before he is canonized, the Vatican must approve a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The second miracle must take place after the beatification ceremony. 

How does the Church actually decide who should and shouldn’t be beatified or canonized?

“Some people think that there’s a ‘wink and nudge’ attitude in the Vatican,” said Omar Gutiérrez, who is the notary for a tribunal working through the beginning stages of another cause for beatification, this one for Fr. Edward J. Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town.

“But the remarkable thoroughness of the process took me aback,” Gutiérrez said.

I interviewed Gutiérrez back in 2014, along with Msgr. Richard Soseman, who oversaw the cause for Sheen’s canonization, and Bonnie Engstrom, whose book describing her family’s experience will be released in the fall The interview originally ran, in a somewhat different form, in Catholic Digest

I’ve included a glossary of terms at the end. 

wherever the evidence leadS

Bonnie Engstrom and her husband have always believed it was through the intercession of Fulton Sheen that their son’s life was restored; and a thorough investigation into the details of their story has borne out their theory. A rigorously trained team of investigators pored over every aspect of James Fulton’s seemingly miraculous recovery before adding his case to the cause for the beatification of Fulton Sheen. One tribunal charged with collecting information about a holy person examines alleged miracles, and another one focuses on the life and works of the person himself.

When a candidate’s name is suggested for veneration (the step before beatification), a petitioner asks a bishop to get permission from the Vatican to open a cause. If there is no objection, the petitioner names a postulator to oversee all the logistics of the cause.

Gutiérrez said that the process is like a legal investigation.

“We go wherever the evidence leads us,” he said. “We’re instructed not to cover over anything, but to be forthright. We took a vow of secrecy, because we want people who might have unpleasant information to feel free to come forth.”

In the cause for the beatification of Abp. Sheen, Msgr. Richard Soseman was delegated by Archbishop Jenky of Peoria to oversee all facets of the cause for canonization, and to compile evidence about Sheen’s life for review by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS) at the Vatican. Msgr. Soseman, who is an official of the Congregation for the Clergy, said, “We were in contact with around one hundred people who knew Archbishop Sheen personally, and took testimony in the way prescribed by the Church from the greater part of them.”

Sheen at the Toe of St Peter’s statue in St Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels.com/ (Creative Commons)

Once the diocesan phase is done and the postulator has submitted his argument in favor of the candidate, and once a team of historians, theologians, and prelates for the CCS unanimously agree that the candidate led a life of exceptional virtue, he is referred to as “Venerable.” Then (in the case of non-martyrs) the CCS will consider evidence about any allegedly miraculous events brought about through the intercession of the Venerable in question.

the case was strong

This is where James Fulton Engstrom came in.  James’ mother, Bonnie, said, “My mom told me that I needed to contact the Sheen Foundation, so they would at least have a record of his story. I sincerely thought they would just write it down in a book somewhere in a back room, and that would be that.”

In many cases, that is precisely what happens. Msgr. Soseman said that, when he worked for the archdiocese, he got requests for inquiries into causes as frequently as once a month.

“There are some Causes which ‘fall apart,’ he said, “and perhaps they should at the time that they do. There are some which start a bit slowly, and others which stall at various stages in the process.  I believe there are about 800 causes at the CCS waiting for a miracle or other progress.”

But in the case of James Engstrom, one person talked to another until the postulator in Rome determined the case was strong.  The cause has moved forward with unusual speed – but with no lack of thoroughness. Engstrom was interviewed countless times, and spent years answering detailed questions about her son’s health, and about her and her husband Travis’ devotion to Fulton Sheen. 

The tribunal discovered that Bonnie’s entire pregnancy had been dedicated to Sheen.  She said, “Several witnesses were called who could testify to the fact that Travis and I had a growing devotion to Fulton Sheen; and questions were asked about when and how we and others prayed.”

No natural explanation

The allegedly miraculous event itself is scrutinized in great detail. The tribunal interviewed experts and witnesses to testify about the medical aspects of James’ ordeal.

Engstrom said that the panel of physicians searched hard through witness testimony and medical records, looking for some natural, medical explanation for what happened to her son. Engstrom said she appreciated how hard the panel worked to flush out the truth.

“In some ways it was a lot of fun,” she said. “But every time I tell James’ story, especially the more detail I share, it is difficult. My little boy went through a lot.  It was difficult to watch, and it is difficult to remember.”

Msgr. Soseman said, “The Church is quite rigorous in this process, to make sure that no error or over-enthusiasm creeps in, which might cloud the issue.”

In March of 2014, the panel of physicians appointed by the CCS unanimously agreed that there was no natural explanation for James’ revival and healing. In June, the panel of theologians agreed that the alleged miracle occurred through the intercession of Sheen.

Miter worn by Fulton Sheen. Photo by Nic Wilson (flickr.com/photos/66335735@N07/) Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode)

“We had no idea what to expect!” said Engstrom. “We were totally blown away by the beauty of [the process] — the language used, the sealing wax. We were really impressed with how earnestly the Church wants only the truth. That was really beautiful to watch, too.”

a mountain of Paperwork

Along with the ceremony and beauty, there is a mountain of clerical work involved in a cause for beatification and canonization. 

Gutiérrez said that one aspect of the process that raises eyebrows is the cost. “One complaint I often hear,” he said, “is about the money involved. But the money goes toward paying for postulator’s salary, and for printing. The amount of printing involved is immense.”

When  Msgr. Soseman worked with the Congregation for the Clergy in 2008, he said his office prepared multiple copies of the 6,500 documents gathered in the local phase of the cause alone.

After those thousands of pages for the cause are read and considered, and the theologians and physicians recommend that the cause continue, the cardinals and bishops who are members of the CCS must vote on whether to present the case to the Pope.

everything rests with the Pope

If they vote to continue, they will recommend that the Pope make a Decree of Heroic Virtue – which he may do even before a miracle is declared. Ultimately, everything rests with Pope Francis: he may do nothing, or he may declare that the miracle is valid, and the candidate will be called “Blessed.” For the candidate to be declared a saint, a second miracle is required.

A date has not yet been set for Sheen’s beatification. The ceremony will take place in Sheen’s hometown of Peoria, IL, near where the Engstrom family lives; but the canonization would be held in Rome.

Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria. Photo by Farragutful [Public domain]

Engstrom said in 2014, “If James’ healing is declared a miracle, I think there’s a good chance James would get to present Sheen’s relics to Pope Francis. As a mom, that is both incredibly exciting and terrifying!” 

At the time, no one knew how much longer will it would before the Pope make a pronouncement about Fulton Sheen.

“In the end,” said Engstrom, “This isn’t about James or our family. It’s not even about Fulton Sheen. In the end, this is about Jesus Christ. All of this — the canonization process, the miracles, saints — it’s all a means to an end, and that end is for every person to know and love Almighty God, to live lives that bring Him glory and honor, and to find salvation through Jesus Christ.”

***

Glossary of terms 

Once secret and mysterious, the beatification and canonization processes  are now more familiar to laymen – but some of the terms can be confusing. Here are some of the words and phrases you may hear:

Servant of God: title given to someone for whom a cause for beatification and canonization has begun

Venerable: someone whose martyrdom or heroic virtue has been formally recognized by the Pope

Beatification: recognition that a person is in Heaven. We may pray for intercession in the name of someone who has been beatified, and refer to him as “Blessed So-and-So”

Canonization: recognition that a person is in Heaven and may be universally venerated. Canonization does not make someone into a saint; it infallibly declares that his life is worthy of veneration and imitation

Congregation for the Causes of Saints: the body that oversees the entire process and turns all materials over to the Pope

Petitioner: appoints a postulator and pays for costs associated with the cause

Postulator: Initiates a cause for beatification or canonization and guides it through the process, documenting all relevant information about the candidate, identifying witnesses, and generally organizing and coordinating everything, and formally presenting documents to the CCS

Tribunal: Officials appointed by the bishop to consider evidence for and against canonization

Positio:  The comprehensive document that the postulator presents to the CCS, describing the person’s heroic virtue and the alleged miracle attributed to his intercession

Nihil obstat: (“nothing stands in the way”) A formal declaration by the CCS that there is no impediment to proceeding with the cause   

Theological Commission: Body of theologians appointed by the bishop to examine the writings of the candidate, to be sure there are no theological problems

Historical Commission: Body of scholars appointed by the bishop to examine the acts, visits, and timeline of the candidate

Both commissions report to the tribunal set up by the bishop who has taken up the cause.

Relator: the “reporter” who assembles documents pertaining to the candidate’s life, history, era, and circumstances. Performs many of the tasks associated with the now defunct “Devil’s Advocate” 

Special thanks to Omar Gutiérrez of the Archdiocese of Omaha for his patient and invaluable help in explaining and clarifying the process.

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3 thoughts on “From The Boy Who Lived to Beatification: Fulton Sheen’s First Miracle”

  1. I remember my Dad always listening to Bishop Sheen on the television each week. My Dad was a non-practicing Lutheran. My Mom was a staunch Catholic, who raised all four children in the Catholic faith.
    She prayed daily for Dad to convert.
    When in his late 70’s my Dad joined the Catholic faith. He continued to watch the Bishop Sheen show on TV. When asked how he felt, once he had become a Catholic, he replied “Safe”. Dad passed away at the age of 81.
    Thanks be to Bishop Sheen! God worked through him and his preaching.
    I continue to watch reruns of his shows, while praying for my husband to join the Catholic faith. He is a non-practicing United Christian, who has always supported me while raising our three children in the Catholic faith.

  2. I remember watching Bishop Fulton Sheen when I was a very young child. It’s interesting because I was raised in a Protestant home by parents who were not fond of the Catholic Church and yet they allowed me to watch Bishop Sheen’s programme. I remember finding it so interesting the way he talked about Christ. About fifty years later I was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I wonder if the seed was planted by Bishop Fulton Sheen. It’s always interesting how God draws us to him.

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