By Tom Dermody
PEORIA, Ill. (Catholic News Service) — With joy and thanksgiving, officials and faithful throughout the Diocese of Peoria and around the globe welcomed the announcement Nov. 18 that Pope Francis has called for the beatification of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in Peoria Dec. 21.
“It was a surprise, an early Christmas present from the pope, and it is truly a great blessing for our diocese, for so many people who have worked and sacrificed and prayed,” said Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation. “I’ve believed for a long time that Fulton Sheen is a gift to the church, a hero that we Catholics need in our day.”
The beatification ceremony will take place during Mass at 10 a.m. (local time) at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, where the famed media evangelist and author was ordained to the priesthood 100 years ago.
Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky announced the beatification date the afternoon of Nov. 18 after the diocese received a document sent by email from the office of the Vatican secretary of state confirming Pope Francis’ directive.
In an interview the following day with The Catholic Post, Peoria’s diocesan newspaper, Bishop Jenky described Archbishop Sheen — who died Dec. 9, 1979, at age 84 — as a kind of “American St. Paul the Apostle” because of his “endless zeal” for evangelization.
“It’s hard to think of anyone, except among the saints, so involved in bringing the world to Christ,” said Bishop Jenky.
Calling Archbishop Sheen “a model for all of God’s people,” Bishop Jenky — who petitioned the Vatican on behalf of the Diocese of Peoria to open the canonization cause 17 years ago — said he was “happy to see this step finally arrive.” The archbishop was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
When he learned of the Dec. 21 date, less than five weeks away, “I simply said ‘yes’ and we’re going to make it happen,” the bishop said.
Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes, will preside at the Rite of Beatification and represent Pope Francis. It will be only the fourth such ceremony to take place in the United States. Archbishop Sheen will be the first bishop from the U.S. beatified; he’ll be declared “Blessed,” the step in the sainthood process prior to canonization.
Local planning for the beatification began in July when Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. It concerned the healing of James Fulton Engstrom of Washington, Illinois, who was considered stillborn when he was delivered during a planned home birth Sept. 16, 2010.
His parents, Bonnie and Travis Engstrom, immediately invoked the prayers of Archbishop Sheen and encouraged others to seek his intercession. Just as doctors were preparing to declare that he was dead, James Fulton’s heart started to beat at a normal rate for a healthy newborn. He had been without a pulse for 61 minutes.
An evening Holy Hour will be observed at the cathedral Dec. 20. Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles — who, like Archbishop Sheen, uses modern media to spread the Gospel — will preach.
A Mass of Thanksgiving will be celebrated at the cathedral the morning of Dec. 22.
Further information regarding beatification events will be posted online at celebratesheen.com as details, including seating availability, are made known.
“I’m overjoyed that we finally have a beatification date after all these years of hard work,” said Patricia Gibson, the diocese’s chancellor. She said she has been “in almost constant contact” with Vatican officials since this summer’s events, which also included the transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s mortal remains from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
Msgr. Jason Gray, who is chairing the diocese’s Cause for Beatification Planning Committee, called it “a great blessing” that the beatification will happen “right on the spot where Archbishop Sheen was ordained and also in the presence of his tomb.”
The cathedral location, however, also means seating will be extremely limited and interest is already overwhelming.
At the same time, people around the globe can watch in the manner that brought Archbishop Sheen into millions of homes in the mid-20th century — through the media, including television, livestreaming and social media.
“It’s going to be an intimate celebration in Fulton Sheen’s home parish church,” said Msgr. Deptula. “But more importantly, the world is invited to the beatification via the media.”
“What better man to celebrate in this way?” he asked. “In a beautiful church, in his church. But millions of people may truly feel present, truly participate in this beatification via the media world we live in and that’s very Fulton Sheen.”
The short time for preparation also has its advantages, said Msgr. Gray.
“We’ve been getting regular reports into the diocese about other alleged miracles attributed to the intercession of Fulton Sheen,” he said. Noting a second approved miracle is required for canonization, he added that “it’s a good thing the beatification will happen soon, because that opens the door to the miracle that might bring about his canonization.”
In general a second verified miracle is required for canonization.
Msgr. Richard Soseman, who oversaw early research into Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause and is now vice postulator, agreed it is fitting that the beatification takes place just before Christmas.
“Through him, many souls were prepared to receive the word of God and come close to his Son,” said Msgr. Soseman. “His beatification will lead directly into the season of rejoicing, and prepare countless souls who will watch on television around the world to receive Jesus at Christmas with even greater joy.”
Dermody is editor of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.