Claim of miracle studied for archbishop to be beatified

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If the late Catholic televangelist Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is eventually beatified, it will be due, in part, to testimony concerning a miracle that is said to have occurred in the Pittsburgh region.

A tribunal for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh spent six months gathering evidence from family members and medical personnel concerning a critically ill baby who recovered after relatives prayed to Archbishop Sheen for intervention. The documents were sent to Rome last month, where Archbishop Sheen is a candidate for beatification, the second step toward canonization or sainthood.

Archbishop Sheen died in 1979 at the age of 84. If he is declared a saint, he would be the first American-born man to be canonized, and the first saint to have won an Emmy.

Details of the alleged miracle remain secret, as does the family's identity.

"A series of complications occurred at the time of birth, and the manner in which the complications and problems converged at one time, and the way they were relieved, were considered by many people to be extraordinary," said the Rev. Brian Welding, judicial vicar of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who was in charge of the investigation.

Andrea Ambrosi, a canon lawyer from Rome who is the official advocate for the beatification, said at the conclusion of the hearing that all of the medical witnesses "recognized that a force superior to their medical science intervened for his recovery."

The family belonged to the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Parma, Ohio, which includes Western Pennsylvania. That diocese lacked the staff for the complicated investigation and asked the Diocese of Pittsburgh to take the case. Interviews of witnesses began in February, and about 1,000 pages of documentation were sent to the Vatican's Congregation for Saints last month.

Pittsburgh has ties to the late archbishop, who, in 2003, was declared a Servant of God, the first step toward sainthood. He visited here often, preaching four times at Sacred Heart parish in Shadyside and at least as often at Mount St. Macrina Monastery in Uniontown.

Monsignor John Kozar, a Pittsburgh priest who is his current successor as head of the Pontifical Missionary Societies in the United States, is secretary-treasurer of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation, which supports the effort for canonization.

"Archbishop Sheen has always been a larger-than-life figure for me, going back to my childhood," Monsignor Kozar said. "The fact that I'm sitting at his desk, I can't believe it sometimes."

Investigators are still gathering testimony from people who knew Archbishop Sheen. The Vatican will not review any alleged miracle until it considers whether the archbishop lived a life of "heroic virtue."

"I think we are talking about a couple of years," Monsignor Kozar said.

Canonization is a formal declaration by the church that someone lived an exemplary life and is in heaven, able to pray for those still on Earth. A miracle, usually a physical healing that medical experts say cannot be explained, is required as evidence that the person is praying effectively from beyond the grave. A martyr can be beatified without a miracle, but most candidates require one miracle for beatification and another for canonization.

Archbishop Sheen's case has produced formal testimony of two alleged miracles. Documentation from a 72-year-old woman who survived a torn main pulmonary artery was dispatched to Rome from Archbishop Sheen's home diocese of Peoria, Ill., days before the Pittsburgh hearings concluded. The Diocese of Peoria is sponsoring his cause for canonization.

"This is only one part of a much broader process. It is unusual in that two alleged miracles were presented at the same time at the Vatican," Father Welding said.

The members of the tribunal had to interview the witnesses, transcribe the interviews and have the witnesses review the transcriptions for accuracy. In a few cases, the interviewers went to the homes of witnesses to take testimony, Father Welding said. The tribunal was required to have its own medical expert to review the testimony and give an opinion. Father Welding drafted Dr. Thomas Gillespie, a physician and Pittsburgh seminarian, whose opinion remains secret.

When all 1,000 pages had been completed, Vatican procedure required them to be closed with a wax seal of the diocese. No such seal existed, and the diocese had to have one made for the occasion. One copy of the documents will remain here.

They pertain to a man born in rural Illinois in 1895 and ordained in 1919. He was sent to study at the University of Louvain in Belgium, the Sorbonne in Paris and the Angelicum in Rome. In 1923, he became the first American to receive the prestigious Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy at Louvain.

In 1926, he began to teach theology and philosophy at the Catholic University in America in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he preached a weeklong series at Sacred Heart parish in Shadyside, where he was friends with the Rev. Thomas Coakley, the pastor. Decades later, on another visit to the parish, he would joke that Father Coakley took a chance on him before he was well known, said the Rev. Robert Grecco, current pastor, who has been praying for the archbishop's canonization.

In 1930, Archbishop Sheen began his 22-year radio run with "The Catholic Hour." In 1950, he became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, where he was made a bishop. In 1951, his prime-time network television show, "Life is Worth Living" debuted. It went head-to-head with some of the most popular entertainers of the day and won the ratings.

"The man was brilliant, but he could explain spirituality and the Catholic faith in ways that everyone could understand," Father Grecco said.

Robed in a black cassock, he applied church teaching to everyday issues of relationships and character. He was known for pithy sayings: "The Christian philosophy is, first you fast, then you feast. The secular philosophy is, first you feast, then comes the hangover."

He won an Emmy in 1952 as Most Outstanding Television Personality. The show aired until 1957.

After participating in Vatican II in 1966, he was made bishop of Rochester, N.Y. He resigned three years later to resume itinerate preaching. Pope Paul VI blessed the move, making him a titular archbishop. He lived long enough for Pope John Paul II to embrace him and praise his work during his first U.S. visit. He died three months later, Dec. 9, 1979.

Many high-profile people converted to Catholicism under his tutelage. They included journalist and politician Clare Booth Luce, writer and social activist Heywood Broun, and automaker Henry Ford II.

"I would say he was probably the single greatest agent of conversion to the faith of anybody in the history of the United States. He touched so many, not only non-Catholics, but non-Christians," Monsignor Kozar said.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen during the filming of "Life is Worth Living" in 1957.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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