A Miracle in Peoria?

A team of Vatican medical experts believes a stillborn child regained consciousness via an intercession from a dead priest.

On September 16, 2010, a miracle happened in Peoria. Or at least, a seven-member panel of medical advisors at the Vatican says so: On Thursday, the group reported that it couldn't find a scientific explanation for the survival of James Fulton Engstrom, a stillborn baby who suddenly started breathing after doctors spent more than an hour trying to revive him. While they watched their silent son get CPR, Bonnie and Travis Engstrom prayed to Fulton John Sheen, a deceased priest who lived and worked in Illinois, D.C., and New York before his death in 1979. The parents think this prayer is what helped the baby live. “I believe it was Sheen’s intercession that played a key role in it, but it was Jesus who healed my son," the mother said in 2012.

The baby is now three years old and in good health.

How exactly does a resuscitation become a miracle in the eyes of the Church? There are a few steps. Potential miracles are first examined by local Church investigators, who decide whether to submit evidence to the Vatican. This is reviewed by a panel of medical advisors, who are picked from a large pool of doctors with various specialities, said Monsignor Stanley Deptula, the executive director of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. Contrary to what one might expect, "many of them wouldn't be Catholic or even Christian—they're really looking for medical experts," he explained over the phone.

Now this case will be reviewed by a team of theologians and Vatican advisors, who will decide whether to present it to the Pope. He will make the final decision about whether this is a full-fledged miracle.

Three other possible miracles tied to Sheen have been formally investigated by the local team in Peoria, Deptula said. "We had to select one of the three to move forward to the Vatican, and a canon lawyer helped us to discern that this was the best. It was so clear: The baby was dead, then the baby was alive." A campaign for Sheen's beatification and canonization was started in 2002, and Deptula sees James Engstrom's birth as "part of the way God manifests his will through the discernment of canonization." In other words, by reviving the baby, God was offering evidence that Sheen should be beatified, Deptula says. 

Sheen was born outside of Peoria in 1895 and ordained in the town in 1919. He taught philosophy and religion at the Catholic University of America, hosted his own radio show, and later won an Emmy award for a television show he hosted in the 1950s, Life Is Worth Living. He served as the Bishop of Rochester from the mid 1960s until his retirement, and after he died, he was named an honorary Archbishop by Pope Paul VI. In the summer of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Sheen lived a life of  "heroic virtue," earning him the title of "Venerable." 

If this miracle is fully confirmed by the Vatican and the Pope, it would take one more miracle for Sheen to be considered for canonization, which would earn him the title of "Saint."  

It doesn't have to happen in Peoria, Deptula said, but who knows—it might. "How appropriate that Fulton Sheen works a miracle so close to his birthplace, not far from his hometown," he said. "I like to think that there is a special connection between the miracle and Peoria."

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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