Surprise, joy mark the holy priest’s hometown’s efforts ahead of the blessed event for the local Church and beyond.
“I was amazed and so relieved it was going to be happening. It will be a joy, and we can’t wait. We’ve looked forward to this for years,” Bonnie Engstrom told the Register hours after the Diocese of Peoria announced on Nov. 18 the Vatican’s date for the beatification of Venerable Fulton Sheen.
The Dec. 21 beatification has been much anticipated by Fulton Sheen devotees like Bonnie and Travis Engstrom, whose son James Fulton was miraculously restored to life and health through the intercession of Bishop Fulton Sheen. His miraculous cure was unanimously accepted by the Holy See for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification.
Engstrom said James Fulton, who turned 9 years old in September, is both “excited and a little nervous. He knows there will be a lot of eyes on him.” The Engstrom children “are excited” — all eight — to go to the local cathedral for the beatification.
Engstrom told the Register she feels Archbishop Sheen is “a steady presence in our lives and in our prayers. He’s been very reliable for me, someone who I can turn to, especially as James grows. He’s been a good friend.”
The joy is palpable in Peoria.
“Personally, it’s a real gift,” said Father Alexander Millar, rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, where the beatification will take place and which enshrines Fulton Sheen’s tomb. “We have the example of the saints and the reality of heaven … and we can see in Fulton Sheen not only God’s grace makes that possible, but makes it worth it. It’s a real gift having the body of a saint here.”
The announcement of the beatification date caught everyone by surprise, however.
When Sister Lea Stefancova of the Franciscan Sisters of John the Baptist, based in Peoria, heard the news, she greeted it as “a very happy shock, a real surprise.”
Sister Lea, who works in the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum, added, “We were hoping for a long time, and finally it came through. It’s a very exciting time for Illinois and for the Church.”
Peoria Diocese Prepares
Plans for the beatification have been underway for the last six months, ever since the Diocese of Peoria was informed of the final approval of the miracle for the beatification by Pope Francis. “We had many things in place and were just waiting for the selection of the date,” Msgr. Jason Gray, who works with the beatification planning committee, told the Register.
“We’ll be able to fit 1,200 people in the cathedral,” he said, “and we have overflow locations if people can’t get into the cathedral itself.” The overflow locations include different churches and nearby facilities where people can watch the broadcast. After the beatification ceremony concludes, off-site visitors can make a visit to the cathedral to pray by Blessed Fulton Sheen’s marble tomb, which is located by a side altar dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A short distance away is the altar where he was ordained 100 years ago on Sept. 20, 1919.
“We’re working out the details now for the broadcast [of the beatification], which will be on EWTN and also shared online,” Msgr. Gray explained. “We’re speaking with other networks, and for any network interested we’re able to provide the feed, including internationally, so this has the widest possible reach. Sheen in particular has an international appeal.”
He noted that because Fulton Sheen used TV to spread the Gospel around the world, “it’s fitting we’re using the same medium to share the beatification with the whole world.”
Pre- and post-beatification events are planned, too. The evening before, there will be a Holy Hour at which Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron will preach. And a Mass of thanksgiving will be celebrated the day after.
“We are actually anticipating several more anniversary events during this year,” Msgr. Gray added. They include celebrations on May 8, the 125th anniversary of Sheen’s birth; June 11, the anniversary of his episcopal ordination; and Sept. 20, the conclusion of his 100th-anniversary year of ordination. Dec. 9 will mark the 40th anniversary of his death.
And Msgr. Gray told the Register that the diocese received word from the Congregation for Divine Worship that Archbishop Sheen’s feast day will be Dec. 9.
Father Millar expects a huge turnout for the Dec. 21 beatification ceremony during this centennial year marking the anniversary of Archbishop Sheen’s ordination. “We will do everything we can to facilitate as much participation as possible for the beatification,” he said, “and to make this event as open to as many people who can come.”
Since Fulton Sheen’s body was brought to the cathedral on June 27, the rector has seen “a rather significant increase in people making a pilgrimage to Peoria and to his tomb.”
Father Millar has his own personal connection to the soon-to-be “Blessed.” Of the three additional churches Father Millar also administers, one is St. Joseph parish, which merged with St. Patrick’s, where Fulton Sheen served as assistant pastor in 1925-26.
Father Millar said, “Fulton Sheen’s mission is part of my mission even before his beatification.”
Museum Will Be Ready
The Franciscan Sisters of John the Baptist have a special connection to the soon-to-be “Blessed,” too.
Sister Lea explained that, as a community, their first Holy Hour of our day is offered for Peoria’s bishop, priests and seminarians. “This daily Holy Hour was really inspired by Bishop Sheen. That’s something very special to us. We believe in his message and in the urgency of the Eucharistic Holy Hour.”
This Sheen-inspired Holy Hour began in 2006, when the community was established. When the museum opened in 2008, Sister Lea explained that Peoria’s Bishop Daniel Jenky asked them to start the Sheen archives and take care of the museum. Ever since, they have been “immersed in the whole cause, studying and spreading the message of Bishop Sheen,” she said. “This is a very special place to work.”
The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum anticipates an increase in visitors after the beatification, as, Sister Lea recalled, shortly after the archbishop’s body arrived in June, “large numbers of people were coming from everywhere to visit his tomb and the museum.” She described the “wonderful sight” of seeing “people immersed in prayer so deeply at this tomb, bringing him their problems.”
She finds people coming who remember Fulton Sheen from his Life Is Worth Living television shows and other appearances, plus his many books, in addition to young people who have discovered him via social media and websites. Sister Lea explained, “He was speaking the truth, and that’s how he was attracting people, especially young people.”
The city of Peoria is also preparing for the beatification. “It’s an extreme honor, and the community is ecstatic this is going to happen,” Mayor Jim Ardis told the Register. “We’ve been praying for this for years and years.” He reflected on the blessing of having it “happening in your community — having someone there one step from sainthood. That’s the general feeling in the community.”
Mayor Ardis said the police and other safety departments are coordinating with the diocese. “We’re in the process of firming plans for coordinating traffic and what are expected to be tens of thousands of visitors.”
Ardis, who attended Catholic grade school and the Spaulding Institute, the same high school Fulton Sheen attended, two blocks from the cathedral, says he is “a proud Catholic” and personally “ecstatic.” Present at the cathedral on June 27 to welcome the remains of Fulton Sheen, he said of that momentous day, “Just the feeling of being in the presence of a future saint sent shivers down the spine.”
Looking forward to the beatification, Ardis reflected, “Our community is so blessed to have this happen. It’s a blessing for all of us.”
Nic Wilson heard the beatification announcement at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, where he is studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Peoria. He told the Register he “thought joyfully of the excitement of my friends throughout the diocese, in religious life and in other seminaries,” who eagerly anticipated this day with “fervor, prayer and fasting, hoping that they would get to see Venerable Sheen beatified soon.”
Personally, Wilson says, “This beatification is the fulfillment of a long-standing hope and the beginning of a great new chapter of spreading the Gospel through the witness, preaching and intercession of Fulton Sheen. It is deeply moving for me to pray at Sheen's tomb in the cathedral where he was ordained a priest of such great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to be able to call him ‘Blessed,’ to look to his example and to seek his intercession in my own striving to become and live as a faithful, holy priest.”
Wilson loves to see pilgrims placing their hands on Sheen's tomb “with tenderness, seeking his aid, and knowing the power and presence of Jesus Christ in their lives through this moment with Fulton Sheen. Hopefully, his beatification means that many more pilgrims to his tomb will hear ‘God love you’ in their hearts for years to come.”