People today, especially those under 50, will have no idea how a single television show can have dominated the media landscape. Before 500 channels, before micro-targeted programming, there were only three networks, and the national conversation could center on a single show.
Such was the conversation around a Catholic priest named Fulton J. Sheen, whose 1950s television show Life is Worth Living often pulled even higher audience numbers than the biggest TV star of those days, Milton Berle. It is remarkable that a Catholic priest could stand before a blackboard – that’s all – write on it, lecture, and draw ten million viewers week in and week out.
Now Sheen may be up for a prize even bigger than the Emmy he won, back when Emmys weren’t a dime a dozen, back before every local producer had one on his shelf. Sheen is up for Sainthood by the Catholic Church, and the miraculous birth of a baby boy three years ago may be the nearly final proof the Church needs to determine that Heaven is speaking and telling us that Sheen is really there.
Three years ago a boy was stillborn in Peoria, Illinois. The boy had no pulse for 61 minutes after a relatively easy pregnancy and labor. His mother and father prayed fervently to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, to whom they had a devotion.
The doctors worked on the boy for an hour, which seems like a miracle in itself. Just as the doctors were about to call the time of death, he revived. He lived. He is three today, and last week a committee of the Catholic Church, including medical experts, accepted this as one of the possible miracles that will move Sheen one step closer to being named an official Saint, that is, someone the Church says Catholics may pray to for intercession and favors.
The Church teaches that everyone in Heaven is a Saint, but the Church recognizes only a relative few who are proven to have led lives of “heroic virtue”. A recognized miracle is one of the final steps in the process that leads to one of those huge Masses in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, like the one taking place next week when Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be named official Saints of the Church.
The process of canonization can be long – centuries long – and arduous. The Church examines all aspects of the person’s life, including all his writings – and, in Sheen’s case, his TV and radio appearances.
There is also the pesky need of a miracle.
After a close examination of the circumstances of the boy’s birth and his ongoing condition, medical experts have concluded there is no scientific explanation for how the boy, James Fulton Engstrom, lived. The boy’s mother has no doubt “it was Sheen’s intercession that played a key role in it, but it was Jesus who healed my son.” There was a great fear that the boy would be permanently harmed by being without a pulse for so long – that he would be blind or crippled. He is neither and is in perfect health.
The cause for Sheen’s canonization was opened in September 2002. The local phase of his cause was started in 2008, shortly after the cause was accepted at the Vatican. A summation of his life and works was presented to the Vatican in 2011. Pope Benedict XVI named Sheen “Venerable” in 2012. If Sheen is named to Sainthood soon, it will be one of the fastest in Catholic history.