Archbishop Fulton Sheen

As many of you know, I grew up in the NYC metropolitan area. A cradle Catholic, I attended parochial schools in the Bronx, including St. Barnabas Elementary School and Cardinal Spellman High School. My father was a Knight; I became a squire when his Council formed a Squires Circle. The minimum age for a Squire in 1965 was 13, and they were short of the required number to start a Circle. Since I was “in my 13th year of life”, counting the time I spent in the womb, I was allowed to join and a Circle was formed. Of course, six years later, I became a Knight.

During that time in NYC, a leading voice in the Catholic Church was Bishop Fulton Sheen. Bishop Sheen was born in Illinois in 1895 and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria at the age of 24. He was appointed an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of NY two years before I was born and was a pioneer in Catholic radio and television. Time magazine called him the “first televangelist”, and he won an Emmy for the Most Outstanding Television Personality – twice. Upon accepting the award in 1952, he reportedly said, “I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

His first television program ended in 1957, and in 1958 he became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith until 1966 when he was appointed Bishop of Rochester NY. His syndicated television program, The Fulton Sheen Program, ran from 1961 until 1968. I remember watching his program on our old black and white TV. Sheen retired in 1969 and moved back to New York City until his death ten years later.

As you may know, Archbishop Sheen was also a 4th Degree Knight. In 2002, the Cause for his Canonization as a saint was officially opened by the Bishop of Peoria, Daniel R. Jenky, who is also a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, after the Archdiocese of NY declined to pursue the Cause. In June 2012 Pope Benedict XVI recognized Archbishop Sheen as having heroic virtues, and Sheen was declared “Venerable”.

The Cause for canonization, however, ran into a snag. Bishop Jenky requested that Archbishop Sheen’s remains be moved to Peoria from a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This needed to be done so the body could be closely examined, and first-class relics taken, both of which are among the final steps that take place before beatification and canonization.

Sheen’s last will and testament declared his wish to be buried in the Archdiocese of New York Calvary Cemetery.  Soon after Sheen died, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York asked his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, Sheen’s closest living relative, if his remains could be placed in the crypt at St. Patrick’s, and she consented.

Cunningham has said that Sheen would have wanted to have been interred in Peoria if he knew that he would be considered for sainthood. In 2016, she filed a legal complaint seeking to have her uncle’s remains moved to Peoria.

After a two-year legal battle, as reported by the Catholic News Agency just last month – on Friday June 8 the Superior Court of New York ruled in her favor. A week later, the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral said they will appeal the decision.

As we know, approval of a miracle attributed to the intercession of a person being considered for sainthood is necessary for beatification. While all the legal haggling has been going on, Archbishop Sheen has been at work on a cause close to the Knights of Columbus – the right to life of the unborn.  His intercession has been credited with the miraculous recovery of a pronounced stillborn baby from the Peoria area.

This miracle took place on September 16, 2010 when the infant son of Bonnie and Travis Engstrom was found to be stillborn. During the delivery, his umbilical cord became knotted, cutting off blood and oxygen during the delivery process. When he emerged, the baby was apparently stillborn. He was pulseless, his arms and legs flopped to the sides and he was blue in color.

Since Bonnie Engstrom had decided on a home delivery, the midwife and others had to perform CPR on the baby in anticipation of an ambulance to take him to the hospital. After 20 minutes, the ambulance arrived and took the lifeless child to the hospital. Upon arriving, doctors again tried to revive him through resuscitation and epinephrine injections, but after 61 minutes, were about to declare him deceased. Previously knowing the baby’s gender, the Engstroms had already decided to name their son James Fulton because of their devotion to Archbishop Sheen. Throughout the ordeal, the Engstroms and some family friends prayed through his intercession for the life of the child.

At the moment the doctors were about to call the death of James, his heart started to beat for the first time – at a normal heartbeat of 148 beats per minute. This in itself was extraordinary because James moved from lifelessness to ordinary cardiac activity instantaneously. However, this is only part of the story.

After 61 minutes of cardiac arrest and significant oxygen deprivation (except for the times during which CPR was administered), doctors expected James to suffer from massive organ failure.  When this did not occur, they predicted that he would be severely disabled, noting that he would probably have cerebral palsy, requiring him to be strapped to a wheelchair with feeding tubes for the rest of his life, and consigning him to blindness and virtually no mental activity.  Contrary to all expectations, James did not manifest any of these deficiencies or symptoms, but very clearly continued to develop like a normal child.

A seven-member panel of medical specialists assembled in Peoria (the place of the miracle) to examine all medical records associated with the case as well as James himself.  They concluded in March 2014 that James’ recovery and development could not be explained through any scientifically known natural causation.  Given the circumstances, he should have been either dead or severely disabled.

In June 2014, a panel of theologians that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints ruled that the baby’s recovery was miraculous. Now we must wait to see if the Archbishop’s remains will be moved to Peoria and his cause for canonization continued.

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