On Sept. 15, 2010, Bonnie Engstrom went into labor after a healthy, low-risk pregnancy. What no one knew at the time was that her son, James, had a true knot in his umbilical cord that had tightened during labor and cut off his oxygen supply. When he was delivered, he was lifeless. James was without a pulse for 61 minutes. Just as the medical staff at the OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Ill., were preparing to call time of death, James’s heart started beating. And, in his mother’s words, “it never stopped again.”
The family asked for the intercession of Archbishop Fulton Sheen for their son’s life and for the complete healing of any damage to James’s body, and the answer to their prayers was recently approved as a miracle by Pope Francis. As a result, Fulton Sheen will be beatified later this year.
I talked with Bonnie by phone about the miracle, how Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization has affected her family and what her hopes are for the church. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Miracles are extraordinary events, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that they happen to ordinary families.
Yes! I am basically a stay-at-home mom, and I like to bake and plant flowers in my yard. My husband Travis is a high school science teacher, and he does handyman work. We have a big family, but our kids are just normal kids. Sometimes they watch too much television; sometimes they fight. They climb trees, ride bikes, just normal stuff.
And you’ve just been through a whirlwind over the past month! Your son’s miracle has been approved by the Vatican. On the day of his birth, after James’s heart started beating, how did events play out at the hospital?
I’ll never forget Travis saying to me: “James is alive. And everything is going to be O.K.” And he totally believed it. You could tell everyone else in the room was like, “Uh...that’s not what’s happening here.”
Because at that point the medical staff knew that James should have severe brain damage due to lack of oxygen?
Right. They expected him to die again due to massive organ failure. The hospital chaplain and our pastor arrived and said: “Travis, I know you did an emergency baptism. If you like we can confirm him.” We were in a state of shock. We weren’t processing what was happening.
So the offer to confirm James meant that everyone around you knew that he was close to death?
We assume the doctors told the hospital chaplain, “This baby is not going to live and the family is Catholic,” and with that information, the chaplain offered us confirmation. I remember asking, “But what will James do in seventh grade?” because I really didn’t understand what was happening.
And you started asking for prayers?
Shortly after the confirmation, we posted on Facebook and on my blog what had happened and asked for prayers through the intercession of Fulton Sheen. And because of social media, people all over the world were praying for a miracle: that James’s brain would be healed (after significant damage was shown on his first M.R.I.) and that his body would function normally.
Because of social media, people all over the world were praying for a miracle: that James’s brain would be healed.
What happened when the miracle was investigated?
After James’s followup M.R.I. showed that his brain was fine we called the Sheen Foundation to tell them about the miracle. When James was 1 year old, they opened the tribunal for three months until the investigation of the miracle was complete. Travis and I turned over all of the medical records; we and 15 other people were interviewed. Everyone had to answer the same list of questions for consistency’s sake—James’s doctors, the midwife, friends, pastors—to build the evidence for the miracle. The evidence was gathered and sent to Rome.
In March of 2014, the medical experts who advise the cardinals who make up the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously approved it as a miracle with no scientific explanation at all. That June the theologians unanimously approved it as a miracle through the intercession of Fulton Sheen. Then there was the pause in the cause.
The pause in the cause being that Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization was on hold for almost five years because the Diocese of Peoria was not given access to Sheen’s remains from the Archdiocese of New York. For your family, what was the emotional toll of waiting without knowing what would happen when you were so intimately connected to this beatification?
We basically had to accept that God’s timeline was different than ours. Travis and I both thought that the cause would progress and everything would be done when James was a little boy and when it would be easier for us to shield him from the spotlight. By the time he grew up, it would have all been in the past and the world would have moved on. And we’d have played the part God assigned to us. That’s something I argued with God about a lot: “Why did you let this happen? I’m worried for my son!” And now, James is almost nine, and the spotlight is back on our family, and Travis and I try to shield him from that as much as possible because he’s just a boy who wants to play and doesn’t want to be touched by strangers or put on a pedestal.
He wants to be James, not the Miracle Boy.
Yes! So for us, that was the hard thing. And it was hard to know how to handle wanting to protect our son’s privacy while also wanting to share the miracle with the world for the good of the church and the glory of God.
I hope that more people read and listen to Fulton Sheen and that as they encounter him, they will grow in their love of the Blessed Virgin Mary and in their love and appreciation of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
As James’s mother, how do you process the fact that God miraculously brought your son back to life when other parents’ prayers might not be answered the same way?
That is the hardest part of all of this, and it’s something Travis and I talk about a lot because it causes us a lot of sorrow. Not that we’re not grateful! But I don’t know why we got this. I don’t know why. I lost a baby in a miscarriage several years ago, and when I found out I was miscarrying I begged God to save my baby, and he didn’t. And when we found out our daughter Lydia would need open-heart bypass surgery we begged God that we wouldn’t have to go through that because going through open-heart surgery with your child is just horrendous.
I don’t know why God allows some suffering and why God answers prayers the way he answers them. But I have to trust and believe that everything works out for the good of those who love him. One of my favorite Bible verses is from Revelation, when Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new!” So in every hard situation, I turn that over to God and I expect him to say, “Behold, I am making something new.” I can’t imagine what it will be; I don’t know why these things happen. But I know he makes all things new.
There’s no date announced yet for the beatification Mass, but when it occurs, will your family get to participate in some way?
[Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky] has asked our family to present the relics at the Mass. Typically, that privilege is given to the person who has received the miracle, but since James is so young the bishop thought it would be great to have the whole family there.
What is your hope for the church with this beatification?
I have a lot of hopes. I hope that more people read and listen to Fulton Sheen and that as they encounter him, they will grow in their love of the Blessed Virgin Mary and in their love and appreciation of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I hope and pray that more men will hear and answer the call to become holy priests. I hope and pray that more people will spiritually adopt unborn babies. Fulton Sheen wrote that spiritual adoption prayer, and I hope that more people will come to love it.
I hope that people will come to know and love Christ more. Fulton Sheen loved God and he loved his faith, and that’s so obvious when he preaches and when he writes. The end destination of all saints should be that they lead us closer to Christ, and that’s what I hope and want for the church through this beatification.