‘Fulton Sheen will be canonised – but when?’

Hopes of a breakthrough were raised in 2011 when documentation of a reported miracle was sent to Rome (AP)

Fr Andrew Apostoli was identified as one of the world’s 10 most amazing priests in 2012. He was influential in the founding of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and later, in 1988, he was key to the emergence of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. A regular host on the Catholic global television network EWTN, Fr Andrew is an expert on the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima and has written many books on the subject of the Apparitions as well as the Holy Spirit. One of his most gripping titles was What to Do When Jesus is Hungry, a book about the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. Fr Apostoli is currently the vice-postulator for the Cause of the canonisation of Archbishop Fulton John Sheen. He currently lives in  Yonkers in New York.

We know so much about your work and achievements with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and your involvement with EWTN, but what was your early life like? Did your sense of vocation develop at an early age?

I was born in Woodbury in New Jersey, having one older brother and two younger. The family lived in Gibbstown for about three months before moving to the Bronx later. My mother was from the Bronx and my father was from South Jersey. My family attended the Capuchin parish of the Immaculate Conception, where I remember serving at the altar from a very young age, about six years old. Both my mother and father were involved in the church. It was during this time as an altar server that I felt a great attraction to the priesthood.

I first went to a public school as there were no Catholic schools in in my area but a Catholic school opened whilst I was in the fourth grade. After moving back to South Jersey I attended a public school again from the sixth to eighth grade. It was during my time in the eighth grade that my grandmother died and the family moved again and this time we found ourselves in the parish served by the Capuchin Franciscans. It was in this parish that I spoke to a priest who I admired and he arranged for me to visit a friary, which was also a seminary. I felt that the brothers were joyful and I wanted the joy that I saw.

I entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Geneva, New York, which was a high school seminary in the Diocese of Rochester. After graduation I did one year’s novitiate. I took the name Andrew (Fr Andrew’s birth name was Joseph Dominic Apostoli) and then commenced an intensive course in Philosophy. Following final vows I went to Geneva in New York to a theology seminary. It was during my fourth year that John Fulton Sheen became Bishop of Rochester. I first met Bishop Fulton Sheen when he was undertaking a pastoral visit to Geneva in mid-December 1966. I was later ordained by Bishop Fulton Sheen on March 16, 1967 in the Church of St Francis de Sales in Geneva. I had grown to know him and love him.

What influenced your appointment as vice-postulator for the Cause of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s canonisation?

After ordination I moved from Rochester diocese to Lafayette in New Jersey where I taught at a Capuchin prep seminary. From there I transferred, in 1973, to Beacon in New York where I became part of a formation team for novices and postulants. Whilst back in New York I saw Fulton Sheen on two occasions. The first time was when I attended a day of recollection, led by Bishop Fulton Sheen, with 250 priests in attendance. The second time was when he spoke at West Point, where I managed to talk to him afterwards.

After his death, I felt a growing sense within myself that I should work for his canonisation. I felt that we couldn’t let his voice go silent in the Catholic Church, we need him too much. At this time I discovered the group that was forming the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. They felt that not enough was being done as he was seen as being too pre-Vatican II by those who were more liberal in the Church.

I went to see Cardinal Egan and asked him if he would open the cause for Bishop Sheen. Egan’s predecessor, Cardinal John O’Connor, had said that he wished to leave that decision to his successor. Cardinal Egan said that whilst Fulton Sheen went on to be Bishop of Rochester he also remained a priest of Peoria diocese. Therefore both Rochester and Peoria could claim the jurisdiction to open the cause. Cardinal Egan asked me to Contact the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the priest that I spoke to confirmed what Cardinal Egan had said.

The Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation decided to contact Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, who agreed to open the Cause. In 2002 He sent a canon lawyer, R. Soseman to the Vatican to request that he be approved as bishop of the cause. On the next day, September 14, the Vatican issued a statement confirming Bishop Jenky as the bishop with jurisdiction. Bishop Jenky then went on to recognise the position of the Archbishop Sheen Foundation and appointed me as vice-postulator.

Many people will not know what a vice-postulator is. Can you please explain what is involved in your role?

I had to be in contact with the people who claimed the miracles through the intercession of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Initially two cases were submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The first case was of an infant who was suffering from three possibly life threatening conditions, the most significant of which was sepsis. At best it was expected that he would have scaring and it was possible that he would die. The parents had sought only Fulton Sheen’s intersession. The boy recovered with no visible scars.

The second case was a woman undergoing a lung operation. It was expected that she would need to have a quarter of her lung removed. During the operation the surgeon severed the pituitary artery and the nurse was told to take the family to the mourning room where families were usually consoled and given bad news. The family invoked Bishop Sheen and the nurse later was to inform the family that the woman was not going to die after the artery was successfully stapled back together again. The woman’s husband prayed continually for two hours to Archbishop Sheen.

A few years after these initial miracles another occurred what would become the primary case. A woman was giving birth to her fifth child as a homebirth. A midwife and medical nurse were in attendance. The child was stillborn. The nurse examined the baby and there was no sign of breath, brain activity or a heartbeat – it was what is described as “triple zero”. In the ambulance on the way to hospital the child was examined again and the nurse’s findings were confirmed. There was still no heartbeat, breath or brain activity. Arriving at the St Francis Medical Centre in Peoria the doctors confirmed that the baby was stillborn and began to complete the death certificate. The mother continued to invoke Fulton Sheen and the baby started breathing as the death certificate was being signed. The boy lived to be healthy with no physical or mental impairments.

Following this the case was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints prior to this and the Vatican announced that it had recognised Sheen’s life as containing heroic virtues. This declaration meant John Fulton Sheen was to be known as Venerable.

The next step was for Fulton Sheen miracle to be examined by a team of medical experts from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This panel of seven doctors concluded that it could not determine a natural cause to the miracle that was attributed to Bishop Fulton Sheen. The next stage was a panel of theologians who all agreed that the miracle could be attributed to the parents invoking Bishop Fulton Sheen. The next step will be the analysis of the body of the Venerable John Fulton Sheen.

How has Fulton Sheen inspired you, especially in your ministry with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and your presenting work on EWTN?

I remember being influenced when reading Sheen’s book, The Priest is Not His Own, before my ordination. Sheen spoke at my ordination about of the image of priesthood becoming blurred. He said boys don’t want to be priests anymore. He told us that if anything was to restore the Church and bring salvation it was a renewal of the priesthood. This kept coming back to me over the next 20 or so years. I became consciously aware that if the renewal of priesthood was key. I hardly did any work with priests. I had been involved in the formation of sisters and brothers but did nothing with priests. Eighteen years after ordination, I met Fr Benedict Groeschel, a Capuchin whilst attending one of his courses. We became good friends and I offered to help on his retreats for priests. Several months later he called me up and asked if I could help as he was due to have heart bypass surgery. He was due to run a retreat for 104 priests and two bishops. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end! At the retreat I told the priests that some retreat directors are in the Who’s Who and some are in the “Who’s That?”. I was certainly in the latter.

Fr Benedict had some good feedback and we began working closely together. Some brothers started thinking and praying about renewal and that is where it all started.

I can see that you have a great love for Archbishop Sheen and are passionate about his Cause. In your opinion what were the greatest moment of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s ministry?

Bishop Sheen did many great things during his ministry. He taught philosophy and religion at the Catholic University in Washington DC for 24 years. He was the national director of the USA Propagation of Faith for 16 years. He was the voice of the Catholic Hour radio programme for 20 years with an estimated 4-5 million listeners. He had a very popular TV programme called Life Is Worth Living for six years with a viewing audience of between 25-30 million. He won an Emmy as the “Most Outstanding Personality on TV” in 1952. He also wrote 65 books, some of which became classics.

But perhaps one fact overlooked is that it is estimated that he had about 52,000 converts, many of them communists. The conversion of Bella Dodd in 1950 was certainly something significant. She was a communist and had belonged to the party since 1930. Josephs Stalin’s plan at the time was to encourage unholy priests support unworthy men to enter the seminary to bring the Church down from within. The communists were worried about the international influence of the Church and saw it as a threat. Bella had recruited approximately 1,100 men into the seminaries. Without the influence of Fulton Sheen the disaster could have been far worse.

Many people have been touched by Archbishop Sheen’s personality, holiness teaching and faith. How has Fulton Sheen influenced your personal spirituality?

I remember having dinner at the friary on the day of my ordination. Bishop Sheen said to me: “Andrew, today you have received the power of the Holy Spirit”. This really hit me. I had experienced four years in seminary and never studied the Holy Spirit in depth. We covered the Father and the Son but never the third Person. The Holy Spirit has now become important to me. I have since written five books on the Holy Spirit.

You have spent many hours working for the Cause and you must have met a great number of people who have been influenced by Fulton Sheen. Were there any other miracles that were not part of the original case?

Yes. There was a lady who met Bishop Sheen when she was 12 years old. He was preaching a dialogue homily and she asked him why women wear hats in church. She remembers him replying: “It makes them look like Our Blessed Mother.” He talked to the girl and put his zucchetto on her head. Thirty years later the woman had a son but then there followed three miscarriages. She conceived again and had prayed to St Jude and St Gerrard to deliver the boy safely. When he was born he was diagnosed with hydrocephaly and needed an operation to fit a stent to drain the fluid from his brain. The mother invoked Fulton Sheen and the water dissapeared The womans doctor went from saying that he was 95 per cent sure that the boy needed an operation to being 100 per cent sure that the he didn’t.

There was also a pregnant Hispanic woman. She had an ultrasound when she was seven months pregnant which showed that the child had a tumour. They would need to operate. The mother worked in a famous fast food restaurant and five days later she was at work when a woman came to have breakfast who was a midwife. She asked the mother how her pregnancy was going and the mother burst into tears. The midwife said that a miracle was needed and mentioned Fulton Sheen’s name, at which she touched the woman’s stomach. The mother leapt and thought that something terrible might have happened to her baby. Seeking medical attention, she had another ultrasound which revealed that the baby was in fine health and there was no tumour. She had both ultrasound pictures to prove it. Sadly, the mother was not prepared to cooperate with the investigation. But it seemed to be a clear miracle.

So do you envisage any signs of movement forward in the Canonisation?

No, there are no signs of movement at all. He will be canonised but how and when?

Fr Andrew Apostoli was speaking to Fr Matthew Pittam at Mater Ecclesiae Convent near Rugby