PEORIA, Ill. — An 8-year-old in central Illinois has an indelible connection to soon-to-be Blessed Fulton Sheen.
Archbishop Sheen is set to be beatified, after Pope Francis’ formal July 6 approval of a miracle brought the cause of Archbishop Sheen’s canonization one step further.
James Fulton Engstrom, who lives near Peoria, was the recipient of the miracle leading to the forthcoming beatification of Peoria-area native Sheen. His parents, Travis and Bonnie Engstrom, prayed for Archbishop Sheen’s intercession in 2010.
“I said to James, ‘Pope Francis knows who you are!’ The Church is so big and we are so little in it, but to share in this really special moment is such a grace from God,” Bonnie told the Register in early July.
“It’s been a joy,” Bonnie added.
Just nine days after Venerable Sheen’s remains were interred in the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria, the Holy Father authorized the miracle that will lead to the beloved bishop’s beatification.
The cause had been held up since 2014, as the Diocese of Peoria and Archdiocese of New York had been engaged in a legal squabble over Venerable Sheen’s remains. A beatification date was not announced at press time.
“It is truly amazing how God continues to work miracles,” Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria stated in a press release. “I am so grateful that the Vatican acted so quickly.”
The beatification announcement comes in the 100th anniversary year of Fulton Sheen’s ordination to the priesthood in Peoria’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, where he is now entombed.
The Engstroms’ miracle happened slightly less than a mile away from the Peoria cathedral, at OSF St. Francis Medical Center, in September 2010. James Fulton, stillborn at his home birth, had been rushed to the hospital. Bonnie and Travis, joined by their family and friends, fervently sought the intercession of their hometown priest. As they prayed for the archbishop’s intercession to heal their son, doctors and a medical team worked on the infant, but he continued to show no signs of life.
But at the moment a doctor was going to pronounce the baby dead, after showing no vital signs — for 61 minutes — James Fulton revived. Mother Bonnie has written about this miracle in the forthcoming book 61 Minutes to a Miracle.
Within a few weeks, little James Fulton was home with his parents. Today, as his mother reported to the Register, “He’s great — a regular 8-year-old boy.”
In 2011, the Diocese of Peoria began a canonical investigation into the miraculous recovery, from analyzing medical records to gathering testimonies of his parents, family members, doctors, nurses, emergency medical personnel and all others present at the time of James’ birth and subsequent coming to life.
According to the Peoria Diocese, “Each testified that there was no medical explanation for the infant’s recovery. Nearly all involved, and some with tears, stated, ‘It was a miracle.’”
When the Vatican commissions examined this reported miracle for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification, in March 2014, the first team of seven medical experts unanimously declared that this event was a genuine miracle attributed to the archbishop’s intercession. Three months later, in June 2014, the Vatican’s team of seven theologians unanimously confirmed the miracle as genuine and supernatural.
Next, the cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints also approved the findings for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification.
Days before word came this month that the Holy Father approved the miracle, Bonnie Engstrom was already feeling blessed.
“When Fulton Sheen was finally brought to the cathedral in Peoria and I was able to sit in front of him,” she told the Register, “I kept sighing these deep sighs, and every time it felt like some of that weight came off my chest. It felt so good to be with him and be able to move on to the next stage. And that really honors and glorifies God.”
The news of the miracle’s acceptance brought joy to others who have been waiting and praying for this moment, too.
“It was incredible,” said Alexis Walkenstein, whose book Fulton J. Sheen was published in 2018. “I was up super late. We had a couple of earthquakes in Los Angeles. And this is an earthquake in the Church — the news we’ve all been waiting for.”
“For us, this means there’s an efficacy in our prayers for him and his intercession,” she told the Register. “He’s operative. And I believe God is going to show us how operative he is through intercession. ... He’s the man of the hour for the Church, for the renewal of the priesthood and for renewal of marriage and religious life. He is a teacher to inspire everyone that ‘life is worth living.’”
Archbishop Sheen’s Emmy-award-winning Life Is Worth Living television show aired weekly in the 1950s with 30 million viewers. For two decades his weekly radio program, The Catholic Hour, drew millions of listeners, too.
Those in the diocese close to Archbishop Sheen, like the Franciscan Sisters of John the Baptist, which were founded in the diocese, are also pleased with the blessed news.
“We believed in Sheen’s holiness even before the cause officially opened. When we started our community in 2006, we did not look for any great canonized saints but chose him to be our special patron since he was from our diocese,” foundress Mother M. Vaclava Ballon told the Register. “So we are overjoyed that God has confirmed with the miracle that the sanctity of Archbishop Sheen’s life is worthy to be imitated by the whole Church. It is wonderful to see him continue doing here and now what he has done his whole life — bringing people to God and having them discover that ‘life is worth living’ for the glory of God.”
“It still seems unreal that we will have a beatification here in Peoria,” Mother Vaclava added, “but we are looking forward to it with great excitement and anticipation, and we hope that many people will be touched by his life and legacy.”
As soon as Pope Francis sets the date of the beatification, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will preside at the ceremony in Peoria. To keep people posted on the holy chain of events, the diocese has set up the website CelebrateSheen.com — all because of a miraculous recovery of a baby from Archbishop Sheen’s native Illinois.
Walkenstein is already anticipating the event.
“Let’s ask Blessed Bishop Sheen for the impossible intentions we have and believe God in his generosity wants us to use his blessed and his saints to do the impossible, to collaborate with him.”
Bonnie Engstrom says that, with the centenary of Fulton Sheen’s ordination coming up on Sept. 20, “It would be awesome if we could celebrate not only his ordination but his beatification on the same day.”
“Whatever happens,” she added, “it will be God’s timing.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.