| Bishop Fulton Sheen |
Two years ago, an Illinois woman named Bonnie Engstrom gave birth to a stillborn baby. Throughout the pregnancy, Engstrom had prayed for a healthy child.
Specifically, she invoked the name of the popular 1950s television priest, Fulton Sheen. In a development that surely would have made the media-savvy Sheen proud, Engstrom even watched videos of the former Irish American bishop on YouTube.
Nevertheless, tragedy for Engstrom’s newborn seemed imminent. That is, until the baby’s heart finally did start beating. The two year-old child is now happy and healthy.
Was this a miracle? Did Sheen, in death, intercede on behalf of this mother to save the child’s life?
If the Vatican believes so, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen may very well become the first male American-born saint.
Last week, the Vatican officially recognized Archbishop Sheen’s “heroic virtues” and gave him the title “venerable.” The next step towards sainthood is to establish whether or not Sheen is indeed responsible for miracles on earth.
There are fewer and fewer people around these days who remember Sheen, even if millions watched his TV show in the 1950s. (Sheen even won and Emmy.)
Those who do remember him recall a firm yet comforting figure, and one who represented arguably the high point of American Catholic power.
However, it’s important to remember that while Sheen may have seemed a stabilizing presence, he rose to prominence at a time of great tension, just two years after a controversial anti-Catholic book became a best seller.
Meanwhile, once Sheen became a household name, he privately battled an even more powerful Irish American force in the church who was known as the “American Pope.”
In other words, you might say Sheen already pulled off a miracle or two, in doing battle with the likes of author Paul Blanshard and Francis Cardinal Spellman.
Sheen’s television show Life Is Worth Living hit the airwaves in 1951. Just two years earlier, American Freedom and Catholic Power was riding high on the bestseller lists.
Written by Nation magazine editor Paul Blanshard, the book argued – as anti-Catholics had for over a century in American – that Catholics simply could not be Democracy-loving Americans because of their allegiance to Rome.
The book clearly struck a chord with many readers, given its popularity. In 1954, Blanshard published another book, this time bashing the Irish. The book was simply called The Irish and Catholic Power.
Given this lingering suspicion of Catholic power, one would think Sheen would tone down his act on TV. But Sheen always wore his full clerical garb.
At the same time, he reminded viewers that Catholics were deeply committed to fighting Communism, which seemed to go a long way towards establishing their ability to be full-blooded Americans.
One viewer who embraced Sheen is currently leading the New York church -- Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
“(Fulton Sheen) showed the broad American public that the truths of our faith were consonant with the highest values of the society -- patriotism, God, family and the struggle against Communism,” Dolan said back in 2009.
Perhaps an even more formidable foe than anti-Catholicism was Dolan’s predecessor and America’s most powerful Catholic in the 1950s, New York Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman.
Tension between these two Irish American powerhouses rose in the 1950s. In his role as leader of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Sheen butted heads with Spellman over money and programs designed to feed the world’s poor.
It has been said that even Pope Pius XII and President Eisenhower were forced to intercede in the war of words between Sheen and Spellman. In the end, Spellman had the final word: he reassigned Sheen, forcing him to leave New York to head up the much smaller Diocese of Rochester.
Despite all this, Sheen persisted and remained a cultural force until his death in 1979.
Surviving the anti-Catholic rants of Paul Blanshard and the massive ego of Cardinal Spellman? Seems to me the saintly Sheen has already accomplished several miracles.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)