By Tom Dermody
Catholic News Service
PEORIA, Ill. (CNS) — Calling Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen “the model of virtue our world needs today,” friends and family of the famed media evangelist and author gathered Sept. 9 to give thanks for Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decree of “venerable” for him, advancing his sainthood cause.
The congregation also prayed for “an even greater celebration to come.”
Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, who formally opened the diocese’s inquiry into the cause a decade ago, was the principal celebrant of a Mass of thanksgiving that drew an overflow crowd to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
Among the concelebrants was Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., who, as Peoria’s bishop in the 1990s, was among the effort’s early supporters.
“Today, as we give thanks for the gift of this great man, let us double our commitment to pray for the success of the cause and that we, like Archbishop Fulton Sheen, will courageously continue to spread the message of the Gospel of Christ throughout the world,” said Bishop Jenky.
On June 28, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the heroic virtues of Archbishop Sheen and declared him venerable. If one of three documented, alleged miraculous healings through his intercession is approved, Archbishop Sheen could become the first American-born bishop to be beatified.
The beatification ceremony also could be the first to take place in the United States, perhaps in Peoria. A second miracle must be confirmed for canonization.
Archbishop Sheen, born in El Paso, Ill., and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria. He became a renowned theologian, orator, and Emmy-award winning radio and television host whose programs were welcomed into tens of millions of homes in the mid-20th century. The former bishop of Rochester, N.Y., and national director of the Propagation of the Faith died in 1979.
The opening procession for the Mass in Peoria included the carrying forward of 20 bound volumes of research outlining why Archbishop Sheen should be declared a saint. Known as the “positio,” the boxed sets were stacked in the cathedral sanctuary and presented to representative individuals and groups at the close of the liturgy.
“I am truly grateful for the many of you who have traveled so far, have given so much, and have prayed so hard to see this day,” Msgr. Stanley Deptula said as the volumes were distributed by Bishop Jenky. The priest is executive director of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation.
“And I remind you that there is still greater work and more prayers to be had as we thank God and beg that God’s church would soon declare Venerable Fulton Sheen to be Blessed Fulton Sheen,” continued Msgr. Deptula. “Let us pray for that great day.”
In a spirited homily, Msgr. Deptula said that after the pope’s declaration of Archbishop Sheen’s heroic virtues this summer, the press seemed most interested in talking about the alleged miraculous healings under investigation.
While they are “amazing, incredible stories,” the miracle that Msgr. Deptula preferred to talk about was the “miracle of God’s transformative love” in the life of Archbishop Sheen and in all who, like him, love Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Sheen’s zeal to preach the Gospel was rooted in his love for Christ and a promise he made on the day of his priestly ordination to spend one hour a day in eucharistic adoration, said Msgr. Deptula.
“Fulton Sheen could roar like a lion from the pulpit because he listened to the small, still voice of the merciful and just king of the universe,” said the priest. “He really loved Jesus. And he knew that Jesus loved him. And he wanted to share that love with the world.”
“This is what we celebrate today,” he continued. “This is what our world needs.”
Among those attending the Mass, as well as weekend celebratory events at the Sheen Museum in the diocesan pastoral center, were dozens of Sheen relatives and others who knew him in life, benefactors of the cause and visiting clergy, including Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal from New York, who is vice postulator.
“His cause is moving,” said Father Apostoli, who was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Sheen and frequently refers to him as “the kind of saint America needs today.” He said the large turnout for the Mass reflected that “they know we’re here for a saint-to-be.”
A large contingent came from Texas, which has formed its own chapter of the Sheen Foundation. Copies of the positio were presented to representatives of Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as well as Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago to thank them for their support.
“Bishop Sheen would have loved it,” said Benedictine Sister Catherine Cleary of the Mass, which she said had energy, reverence and joy. Archbishop Sheen, a first cousin of Sister Catherine’s mother, also would have enjoyed the gathering of family whom he loved including “beautiful nieces and nephews who are following in his footsteps,” she said.
Seated in the assembly was the family of Travis and Bonnie Engstrom of Goodfield. The alleged miraculous healing of their third child, James Fulton, is now under study at the Vatican as the miracle needed for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification.
James Fulton, who turns 2 Sept. 16, was without a pulse for the first hour after his birth following a routine pregnancy. His heart began beating as doctors were ready to call his time of death. Bonnie had asked Archbishop Sheen to watch over her pregnancy and had prayed to him as CPR was performed on her newborn son.
As James Fulton happily exchanged fist-bumps with well-wishers after the Mass, Bonnie said she spent part of the liturgy nursing her newborn daughter, Teresa, and changing diapers. Her husband called it “a very active parenting Mass.”
“I was living my vocation just as Fulton Sheen would want me to,” she told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Peoria Diocese. “We’re celebrating with the entire church today. It’s so exciting that he’s venerable!”
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Dermody is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Peoria Diocese.