By Melvin Arrington
In one of the most famous sports calls of all time, Al Michaels, counting down the closing seconds of the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team’s upset victory over the mighty Soviet Union team, shouted at viewers, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
Well, of course, Catholics believe in miracles but, unfortunately, our modern culture does not. Those who subscribe to the prevailing secular philosophies of our day believe the natural world is all there is: no heaven or hell, no angels and certainly no miracles. In short, our culture pounds it into us on a daily basis that the miraculous simply does not exist and anything remotely considered supernatural is nothing more than superstition or a fraud.
Enter Bonnie Engstrom, popular Catholic blogger and speaker from central Illinois and mother of eight. She and her husband Travis beg to differ. In her recently published volume, 61 Minutes to a Miracle: Fulton Sheen and a True Story of the Impossible (Our Sunday Visitor, 2019), Engstrom relates the gripping facts of how her son James, who was delivered stillborn, suddenly came back to life 61 minutes after his birth.
All the while James was cold and blue and without a pulse or a heartbeat, Engstrom continually invoked the name of the famous Catholic radio and TV evangelist Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) and asked for his intercession for her son. Sheen, a native of central Illinois whose cause for sainthood is currently moving forward, went to school in Peoria and was ordained to the priesthood there one hundred years ago.
The long, winding road to Sheen’s canonization began in 2002 with the opening of his “cause,” at which time he was given the title “Servant of God,” the first step along the way. Then, in June of 2012, following years of investigation into Sheen’s life, writings and broadcasts, Pope Benedict XVI declared that the Archbishop had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and named him “Venerable” (Step two).
Since the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Pope have already given their approval for the cause to go forward, at some point in the not-too-distant future, God willing, the Diocese of Peoria will celebrate Sheen’s beatification, at which time he will be declared “Blessed,” leaving him one step away from sainthood.
Engstrom’s personal devotion to Sheen developed slowly. Oddly enough, her first impression of the pioneer Catholic televangelist was not a positive one. On one occasion when she was back home from college watching television in her parent’s living room, she came across a rerun of one of Sheen’s programs. There was something mesmerizing about his overly dramatic style, his long, flowing cape and the penetrating gaze of those deep-set eyes that led her to ask her mother, “Who is that man? He looks like a vampire.”
However, as Bonnie and Travis uncovered more information about Sheen and watched his videos, they became fascinated with this future saint who was born and grew up only twenty miles from their house. When choosing baby names, the one they settled on for a boy was James Fulton.
This book is difficult to put down, not only because of Engstrom’s captivating, fast-paced narrative but also because of her brutally honest account of her thoughts and emotions. Especially poignant is the chapter where she reveals a deeply troubling dream, she had eight months into her pregnancy, a nightmare that would soon become reality.
During the 61 minutes and the aftermath, when the doctors told her that, if James lived, he would be severely handicapped, she experienced moments of questioning and doubting her faith. But through it all she remained steadfast in prayer, asking for Archbishop Sheen’s intercessory prayers. Meanwhile, James began to reach his developmental milestones. When an MRI showed that the child had no brain damage, it was clear that a second miracle had occurred. And now, at age nine, he is a happy, healthy boy.
Engstrom provides many spellbinding details that add to the compelling nature of this story, details that, because of space limitations, must be omitted from this brief review. And those are what make reading 61 Minutes to a Miracle so enthralling. Because of Sheen’s upcoming beatification, this is a timely read but its subject matter of a miraculous healing is timeless.
And so, each reader, after finishing the book must answer one question. It’s the same question that everyone sooner or later has to answer: Do you believe in miracles?
(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)