The cyberspace staked out by Catholics runs a wild gamut – from brilliant contemporary theologians to paranoid conspiracy theorists – with a whole slew of memes, tumblrs, and tweets in-between. We are spoiled for choices, and don’t have to mine very deeply to find some true gems, throwing out flashes of God’s love into a dark world.
There, tucked away in the blogosphere, is one such gem. At first glance, A Knotted Life looks like every other Catholic mommy blog: pictures of cute kids, honest admissions of daily struggles, recipes – the gracious sharing of domestic minutiae that helps build community in an increasingly fragmented world. But then, you notice a tab sitting unobstrusively at the top of the page that reads, “James and Fulton Sheen.”
That’s when you realize you’re not reading the story of your average family.
The James in question is the son of Bonnie and Travis, who, after a completely normal pregnancy and labor, was delivered stillborn. For 61 minutes, the child was without a heartbeat despite the heroic efforts of medical staff. The situation seemed hopeless – the oxygen bag wouldn’t seal around James’s mouth and nose. They attempted intubating his tiny body three times, and three times they failed. Two shots of epinephrine were given, neither of which resulted in a heartbeat. While doctors, nurses, and hospital staff did all they could, James had no heartbeat, no oxygen, and no signs of life.
Meanwhile, Bonnie and Travis prayed. Their family prayed. Their friends prayed. Specifically, they prayed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, asking him to intercede for James at the throne of God.
Bonnie and Travis had started watching old videos of Archbishop Sheen while Bonnie was pregnant with James. Convinced of Sheen’s holiness, and knowing that his cause for canonization was open, they decided to name their unborn son after the Archbishop. Bonnie began to ask for Sheen’s intercession over her pregnancy, labor, delivery, and entire life of the unborn James Fulton.
During those 61 minutes, the worst, most profoundly dark moments a parent can go through, Bonnie found herself unable to think, unable to even pray. In a state of total shock, the only thing she could think to do was just say the name of the man she’d formed the habit of talking to over the course of James’s pregnancy. She called on him, and relied on his prayers. It was all she could do.
Then, when everyone stopped working on James and the time of death was about to be called, there was a heartbeat.
James Fulton was rushed to NICU, where he spent the next three days being “cooled,” a therapy designed to spare the tiny body further damage.
Further damage. It was this phrase that hovered in the air. If James continued to live, doctors counseled the parents, the amount of further damage would be astronomical. Massive injury to the brain. Possible amputation from the second epinephrine shot, which had leaked all over James’s tiny leg. The EEGs showed abnormal brain activity. The MRIs showed brain damage. Bonnie and Travis were reeling, envisioning a life radically different from anything they ever thought they could shoulder.
Here, the couple relied on their faith. God had been so generous to them during the pregnancy, providing for their every need. During that time James was in the NICU, when Bonnie and Travis were told to expect their son’s death either from massive organ failure or severe disability, they reminded themselves that God is good – that he has always been faithful – and that this would not change.
Time passed. Over a hundred people gathered in the Peoria cathedral in Illinois, the place Fulton Sheen served at Mass and was later ordained, holding a Holy Hour and Mass. They prayed for Sheen’s intercession, for him to continue looking after James, as he had during Bonnie’s pregnancy, and as he had during the hour James was lifeless. The story of James, the Boy Who Lived, spread across the world. Non-believers asked believers to pray. Family members started attending Mass again in thanksgiving. Schoolchildren spiritually adopted James and asked Fulton Sheen’s intercession for him daily.
Three months after James was stillborn, the results of a follow-up MRI came in. White matter was age-appropriate; there was no inflammation, extra fluid, or blocked blood flow; all regions seemed normal. In other words, there was no sign of the brain damage that was noted after James finally took his first breath. Three months after that, James’s feeding tube was removed.
Friends and family told James’ parents that the boy’s story needed to be shared with the Sheen Foundation. This was a miracle, they insisted, through Sheen’s intercession. Finally, Bonnie’s mother pressed her case, if for no other reason than for a record to be kept of the events. Expecting absolutely nothing in terms of follow up, Bonnie sent in the story of James’s death and life to the Sheen Foundation.
From there, the story spread like wildfire through the channels. Ultimately, it wound up at the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, where a seven-member team of medical experts reviewed the documents. Science, they concluded, cannot explain the revival and complete healing of James Fulton. Their findings reached Bonnie and Travis on March 6, who decided to celebrate the miraculous with a charmingly earthy dinner of steak and ice cream.
James, now a completely normal three year old (if such a thing exists), has been a sign and symbol of God’s love and mercy to so many people. However, his parents still marvel at the mundane aspects of the events. “It hasn’t really changed my faith, or my husband’s,” Bonnie says. “[T]he miracle affirmed what we already knew of God: he is all powerful and he can raise the dead and restore us all to life. Everything we went through with James has only been an affirmation of what we already knew of our great God. But I will say that mean people in the comboxes make me have to work on my charity and mercy. (How can someone be mean about a dead baby?! I don’t get it but some people can.)”
The finding by the medical panel, while an important step in Sheen’s canonization process, is not the final hurdle. From here, the case will go on to be reviewed by a board of theologians, then a panel of cardinals, and finally, the Pope.
Looking at James happily playing with his four siblings, Bonnie talks about the bittersweet nature of the alleged miracle. “I know that James’ miracle has been a really beautiful, powerful thing for so many people,” she says. “I am so happy to celebrate with so many people.
However, I also assume that it can be a very hard story for grieving parents to hear. I am sure there’s nothing I can say to help but, for what it’s worth, I never forget those parents and they are always in my heart and prayers.“
Maybe it’s that compassion for others, born out of a love of God, which is the real fruit of a miracle.
Cari Donaldsonis the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at clan-donaldson.com.