Episode 3: The Approved Miracle for the Beatification of Bishop Fulton Sheen
In the Catholic Church today, as a round number, there are about 30,000 canonized saints. Though the process for canonization has evolved several times over, currently, unless a dispensation is granted, two authenticated miracles must be attributed to the intercession of the person being considered for sainthood. It is thought that this serves as evidence not only of the fact that the individual is in Heaven and that God “hears the prayers of the righteous” but it is also a sign of God’s endorsement of the choice, if you will. Hypothetically, try to image 60,000 authenticated miracles just in this one area of the life of the Church. The following is just one of those miracles and involves the miraculous recovery of James Fulton Engstrom, stillborn son of Travis and Bonnie Engstrom of Goodfield, Illinois. The miracle occurred on September 16, 2010 and was approved after careful study from an independent medical investigative team for the beatification of US Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the first “televangelist” of America, Emmy award winner [for Life is Worth Living], auxiliary bishop of New York and native son of Peoria, Illinois.
The seven doctor panel unanimously agreed that James Fulton’s recovery defied scientific explanation and notified the Congregation for the Causes of Saints of their findings on March 6, 2014. The Vatican then gathered data and did their own independent interviews over a 3 month period and a second medical panel of the Vatican reviewed the findings to try to propose and rule out any alternative explanations for the child’s medical recovery. This is how the miraculous event unfolded according to first-hand witnesses:
“Bonnie Engstrom..told the Register that she and her husband, Travis, had entrusted this particular pregnancy from the outset to the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. Throughout the pregnancy, all the signs pointed to a healthy, normal pregnancy. And then came the delivery, at their home in Goodfield, Ill., on Sept. 16, 2010: Their newborn had no pulse [he was blue in color and had the umbilical cord knotted tightly around his neck] and for the next 61 minutes, a nightmare unfolded. [Bonnie] Engstrom was going into shock. Travis called 911 and performed an emergency baptism before ambulance crews came to rush the baby to the hospital. Bonnie only had one thought. “I remember sitting there, on my bedroom floor, saying Fulton Sheen’s name over and over again,” she said. “That was about as close to a prayer as I could get.”
Her shock at the unfolding scene made it “impossible for me to think of anything else,” shared Engstrom. For 61 minutes, James Fulton Engstrom had no pulse and was medically dead, as medical professionals did their best but failed to resuscitate him. The only hope they had was to revive the infant long enough for Bonnie and Travis to hold him and say their brief hellos and good-byes. When the doctors finally gave up and started to certify death, Engstrom said, “that’s when his heart shot up to 148 beats per minute” — just like any healthy newborn. Engstrom said she later learned that her husband had been fast at work starting a prayer chain in that difficult hour, asking others to pray — all over the world — specifically for Archbishop Sheen to intercede and ask God to save their little boy. Astonished by James Fulton’s inexplicable return from death, the doctors told the Engstroms that their son must have suffered severe organ damage from the oxygen deprivation and would be severely disabled. Those predictions, however, never came to pass, and their baby was soon weaned off the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit machines and drugs. [Today the child is 7 years old and healthy.]
“The way my doctor explained it to me was: ‘It’s amazing that James came back to life and it¹s a miracle that he is doing as well as he is.¹ Because he should have had massive organ failure and then they expected him to be very severely disabled. Then they thought that he would have very severe cerebral palsy. They thought that he would have to be strapped to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, have a feeding tube and probably be blind. They thought that mentally he would not be aware of anything. It was supposed to be pretty grim and that was if he even lived.” [To make sure there were no lasting complications, the Vatican chose to continue to study and observe James Fulton’s health for four more years but at last proclaimed him healthy and free from any negative effects of being born without a heartbeat and oxygen deprived for over an hour.]
Believe it or not, there have been documented cases where patients have been without a heartbeat or respiration for longer than James Fulton suffered and these patients went on to survive also. Rare as these cases are, they generally involved drowning in ice water or otherwise being effected by severe cold with “brain hibernation” which was not the case with this child. Standard thought under normal conditions is that organ failure and/or irreversible brain damage occurs generally after about 20 minutes without oxygen. I think the miracle classification comes less from the fact that the child began breathing again after 45 minutes of CPR from three different teams with no response and an additional 16 minutes without breathing or heartbeat. It is more from the fact that there never was any permanent negative effects to the child as a result. The child is completely normal and healthy. Here the medical team could offer no scientific explanation. The Church’s explanation, therefore, is the active intercession of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen must have played a role.
Ironically, the beatification of Fulton Sheen has been delayed not because of any questions around this now officially declared miracle but because the Archdiocese of New York is temporarily refusing the request from his home diocese of Peoria Illinois to have Sheen’s buried remains transferred there. The cause for canonization requires, among other things, that his remains be exhumed and examined. Sometimes even the miracles of God cannot sway the pettiness of our fallen human nature.