Have you ever witnessed a miracle? Have you met a person who experienced one? Sure, I’ve experienced things that seem like they might have a supernatural component. Many to most of us probably have, at least at some point in a long lifetime.
But I’m talking about the real deal. That is, something so extraordinary that you can’t quite explain it by normal physical means, nor can medical personnel. Something that is so stunning, that so defies rational-scientific explanation, that it actually gets taken up by, oh, the Vatican — which, in turn, takes the time to scrutinize it. I recently met someone with just such a case.
A few weeks ago I was at Eureka College, alma mater of Ronald Reagan, the most famous graduate of that little college in rural Illinois. A less-known alum is Bonnie Engstrom, who graduated from the college many decades after Ronald Reagan. I met Bonnie and her husband Travis on March 7, 2019, while visiting Eureka to speak on President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Those familiar with my writing know that I’ve done books on Reagan and John Paul II, but for many years I’ve likewise studied Fulton Sheen, the most widely known American Catholic of the last century. Sheen was enormously popular — watched, listened to, and beloved by huge numbers of Protestants as well as Catholics. He was on the cover of everything from Time to TV Guide, especially with the success of his #1 television show in the 1950s, “Life is Worth Living.”
Sheen, 1895-1979, lived not only a prolific life with his writing and speaking but a holy life as well. I could recommend many readings illustrating the fact, but a good start is Thomas Reeves’ excellent book, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen’s life was so noted for its holiness that the Vatican in June 2012 declared him “venerable,” meaning that he demonstrated remarkable and unusual holiness and virtue.
The cause for the canonization of Sheen has been in process for years. The process requires not only affirmation of holiness but of the miraculous — which brings me to Bonnie Engstrom.
Bonnie is the mom whose miraculous story of her stillborn son now serves as the official Vatican-approved miracle for the canonization process for Fulton Sheen. In 2010, she gave birth to a stillborn baby who showed no signs of life for 61 minutes, until he suddenly came to life with a perfectly normal heartbeat, vital signs, everything. No brain damage, nothing.
That’s unheard of. No one escapes brain damage even after a few minutes of death (probably about six minutes maximum). 61 minutes? Impossible.
Today, James Fulton is a healthy eight-year-old boy.
During that traumatic hour-plus, Bonnie and her husband prayed specifically and solely to Fulton Sheen for his intercession, asking his help alone in pleading their case to God. Bonnie already had a special fondness and devotion to Sheen, who hails from the same wider Peoria area where Bonnie has lived her entire life. Sheen is still remembered for his pro-life ministry. To this day, one can find prayer cards echoing a unique prayer that Sheen — sickened by the results of Roe v. Wade — created for the “spiritual adoption” of unborn babies in danger of losing their lives to abortion. He encouraged people to say a nine-month daily prayer to God to protect these vulnerable pre-born children. Sheen was not only a devoted priest but a devoted pro-life priest.
I asked Bonnie how, specifically, she prayed for Sheen’s intercession in that dire moment. She laughed and noted that she didn’t nor couldn’t do anything particularly formal. She was in shock, on the floor, near her bed. She had given birth at home.
“I remember sitting there, on my bedroom floor, saying Fulton Sheen’s name over and over again,” Bonnie says today. “That was about as close to a prayer I could get…. It was impossible for me to think of anything else.”
Bonnie’s husband, Travis, called 911 and performed an emergency baptism on their stillborn child. The ambulance arrived on the scene and rushed the baby to nearby St. Francis Hospital.
Travis had started a prayer chain, asking others to pray specifically for Sheen’s intercession to God to save their little boy.
All had been well with the baby in Bonnie’s womb until she began heavy labor. It’s very likely that the baby had choked and fully stopped breathing for many additional minutes before he was birthed. He surely had been dead for longer than the known 61 minutes outside the womb.
With no pulse after over an hour, the ER crew gave up resuscitation to declare the child certifiably dead. Just then, his heartbeat instantly started at 148 beats per minute. He was fine. Like nothing had happened.
What occurred is not medically explainable.
This short column doesn’t allow the space to go into heavy detail, but the many confirmed facts of the case, including medical personnel and experts, and the official Vatican team that has probed the account with microscopic and rigorous scrutiny, is truly remarkable. (Bonnie’s website is http://www.aknottedlife.com. Two of the better reports on the story have been published by the National Catholic Register and the Catholic Herald.) In fact, there have been at least three claimed miracles via the intercession of Fulton Sheen, but this one is so strong, so stunning, and so backed by science, that the Diocese of Peoria decided to send this one forward for the Vatican’s inspection.
In March 2014, the Vatican’s seven-member board of medical advisers unanimously approved the miracle to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In June 2014, the team of official theologians who advise the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved the miracle.
Non-Catholics, not to mention many Catholics, have no idea how intense the process is for authentication of a miracle. Very few claims of the miraculous rise to the level that the Vatican is willing to investigate. Once they do, the Vatican scours them up and down. The Vatican has an official Devil’s Advocate, Advocatus Diaboli, who’s tasked with the duty of questioning and trying to find flaws or falsity.
Personally, I was doing something of the same to the Engstroms when I met them at Eureka College — a skepticism I’ve had my entire life, particularly back to my days as a pre-med biochemistry/biophysics major at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was an arrogant agnostic if not an atheist. I’ve never been one to blindly accept things. Quite the contrary.
The reality is that the Vatican considers only the most remarkable claims of the miraculous, and even then scrutinizes them exhaustively. The vast majority of what people think are miracles do not pass muster in Rome. The case of James Fulton Engstrom, however, has.
Today, little James Fulton, who spent his first hour in this world without air, without a pulse, without a heartbeat, breathes and plays and prays with his family. His family credits his life to the intercession of the late Bishop Fulton Sheen, who, with the testimony of the Engstrom family, might at last be declared a saint. Here’s a real-life miracle.
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