Late archbishop was Illinois native
PEORIA – Two decades after Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen died, Catholic leaders say two dying people survived through prayers in the name of the Illinois native who became a national celebrity in the early days of television.
Officials hope the alleged miracles ultimately bring sainthood for the small-screen pioneer from tiny El Paso whose weekly Christian program was America’s most-watched show at one point during its five-year run in the 1950s.
Miracles aside, it could be years before the Vatican decides whether to canonize Sheen, based on past cases that have stretched for decades or even centuries, said Monsignor Richard Soseman, who is heading Sheen’s sainthood bid for the Diocese of Peoria.
"It’s a very slow process. The church has to be very careful when considering candidates for sainthood," Soseman said.
Though a key to sainthood, miracles don’t even come into play until a tribunal researches the life and works of the late archbishop, a process that began in 2003 for Sheen and could take five or 10 more years, Soseman said.
If the study deems Sheen a model of Catholic virtue, proof of a miracle would lead to beatification — the last step before sainthood. Proof of a second miracle would then make Sheen a saint.
Soseman said the miracles attributed Sheen are "powerful," based on evidence collected from family members and doctors.
One, detailed in a 500-page report shipped to Rome last weekend, involved a 72-year-old Champaign woman who was undergoing lung surgery when doctors discovered a tear in her main pulmonary artery.
As surgeons worked to halt the bleeding, her husband said he prayed for two hours, continually invoking Sheen’s name. Later, a doctor told the family that tears are usually fatal "but somehow she pulled through," according to the report.
"The consensus is there was no other logical explanation. All we can say is, ‘Yes, it seems something extraordinary happened,"’ Soseman said.
The second alleged miracle involved a boy born about five years ago in Pennsylvania who doctors predicted wouldn’t live long due to complications of childbirth, Soseman said.
Middle-named for Sheen because of his father’s devotion to the archbishop, the boy "came out of it suddenly" as his parents prayed, seeking Sheen’s intercession, Soseman said. A report on the alleged miracle is being prepared by the Pittsburgh diocese.
Officials say two claims of miracles are unusual so early in a sainthood investigation and that more could surface before Sheen’s bid goes to the Vatican.
If canonized today, Sheen would be the first saint from Illinois and the first male saint born in the U.S., said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sheen, who died in 1979, is perhaps best known for his weekly Christian program called "Life is Worth Living." He also wrote 66 books and countless articles and newspaper columns.
But officials leading Sheen’s sainthood bid say he should be remembered more for his lifelong effort to bring people to Christ, spreading a message of how to love God and love your neighbor.
"I am delighted to think that an American son born in our American heartland is a possibility for sainthood," Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky said in a statement. "To have a son of the heartland witness for Jesus in such a spectacular way, I’d be as proud as I can be."