Pope declares Catholic television pioneer has heroic virtue
Televangelist Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is one step closer to becoming the first American-born man -- and the first Emmy-winner -- to be canonized a saint, after Pope Benedict XVI declared him "venerable" on Thursday.
That means he lived a life of "heroic virtue" and can be considered for beatification and canonization. A claim of a miracle for beatification is already pending at the Vatican. It involves a stillborn baby who was revived an hour later. But as a back-up, Ven. Archbishop Sheen's advocates have a case involving a newborn that was documented in Pittsburgh.
"He seems to have a very powerful influence with infants," said the Rev. Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan from Yonkers, N.Y., who, as vice-postulator of his cause, has a key role in vetting the miracle claims. "At least four cases that I was working with have involved newborn infants and even a pre-born infant."
Canonization is a formal declaration by the Catholic church that someone lived an exemplary life and is in heaven, able to pray for those still on Earth.
Two miracles -- medically inexplicable healings -- are required for most saints, though martyrs require just one. Once a miracle is certified for beatification, which is the step after "venerable," a new miracle that occurs after beatification is required for canonization.
Ven. Archbishop Sheen, who was born in Illinois in 1895 and died in 1979, had Pittsburgh ties that began before he became famous. As a young theologian in the 1920s, he was friends with the pastor of Sacred Heart parish, Shadyside, and preached there several times. He often visited Mount St. Macrina Byzantine Catholic Monastery in Uniontown, where in 1955 he became the first Latin-rite bishop to offer an English-language Byzantine Liturgy, before more than 150,000 pilgrims.
An evangelist at heart, after his 1919 ordination he went door to door in Peoria to revive a dying parish. As a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in 1930, he made church teaching accessible to missions by launching "The Catholic Hour," radio program. It aired until 1952, the year after he began a six-year prime-time television run with "Life Is Worth Living." It won ratings battles with some of the most popular entertainers of the era, landed him on the cover of Time magazine and won him the 1952 Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality.
Supporters say his example is timely as Pope Benedict XVI makes "the new evangelization" a top priority. That's an effort to reach secular people and lapsed Catholics in historically Christian regions.
"Fulton Sheen harnessed the new media of his day. When cutting edge meant radio, he did a radio show. When cutting edge meant television, he did a television show," said Monsignor Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation in Peoria.
His books and recordings still influence Catholics and conversions worldwide.
"He convinced people of God's love for each individual person and that no individual would be lost or considered less than important because of reasons of race or color or creed or political considerations or any of the agendas that people may have," said Monsignor Richard Soseman, coordinator of outreach for the foundation.
In 1950, he was made the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Vatican's major mission outreach organization. In 1969, after three years as bishop of Rochester, N.Y., he resigned to return to the mission field. He donated all income from his books, appearances and shows to the missionary society, said the Rev. Andrew Small, his current successor as head of the Pontifical Mission Societies in New York. Tens of thousands of clinics, orphanages, schools and seminarians exist worldwide today "all because of the efforts of Ven. Fulton Sheen," he said. "He slept on the floor when he went on missions. He roughed it."
There has been a dispute between the Archdiocese of New York, where his body lies in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the Diocese of Peoria, which is handling his cause for canonization, over possession of those remains. Although the question remains open, "I'm sure it will be resolved because there is enough Fulton Sheen to go around for everybody," Father Small said.
A Mass of thanksgiving for Ven. Archbishop Sheen's life will be held Sept. 9 at 10:30 a.m. in the Cathedral of St. Mary, Peoria, Ill. Details are at www.celebratesheen.com.
September also marks two years since a stillborn baby was taken, with no signs of life, to St. Francis Hospital in Peoria.
"The doctors did everything they could and were about to call it when the baby came back to life after an hour," Father Small said. Through the crisis, the family sought the prayers of Ven. Archbishop Sheen, he said. The child is now a healthy toddler, with the middle name "Fulton."
Although some candidates wait centuries for a single miracle claim, Archbishop Sheen's cause was blessed with three, Monsignor Deptula said. Among them was an infant from Ohio who was healed of several illnesses. That case was documented in Pittsburgh in 2006 because it was the closest diocese capable of marshaling the canonical and medical expertise needed for such a hearing.
It was "a remarkably strong case," Monsignor Deptula said, and will be submitted if Rome rejects the stillborn claim. The latter was chosen "because the case is a little tighter. The baby in Pittsburgh had multiple illnesses while the one in Peoria had just one: It was dead."
First Published June 30, 2012 12:00 am