Lessons from a Tribunal
To be honest, I had to look up the word “tribunal” in the dictionary to make sure I knew what it meant. (I did.) I share that semi-embarrassing fact for two reasons. First, so no one out there stops reading this because they think it’s going to be filled with meaningless-to-them Catholic jargon. And second, so it’s clear from the start that I am not an apologist, theologian, or scholar – I’m just a stay at home mom with a BA in English Lit.
As you may know, my stillborn son was without a pulse for 61 minutes. When doctors were about to call time of death his heart started up again. Though everyone thought he would shortly die or live a life filled with severe disabilities my son, James Fulton, is now almost 16 months old and completely normal. Many believe James Fulton is the recipient of an alleged miracle, performed by God Almighty through the intercession of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. This alleged miracle was recently investigated by a tribunal and the Sheen Foundation, and through this whole experience I’ve learned many amazing things.
The first thing I was taught is to never call it a miracle. I can talk about the miracle of life, a miracle on 34th Street, and the miracle of water changing into wine. I cannot talk about the miracle of my son being brought back to life because it isn’t one. Well, you know, I think it’s a miracle and probably you think it’s a miracle but the Roman Catholic Church takes their miracles VERY seriously and it is not an official miracle until they say so. The tribunal was an investigation into the alleged miracle of my son being brought back to life.
Another thing I learned, which I already mentioned, is just how serious the Catholic Church is about its miracles. I had heard people say before, “If the Church says it’s a miracle then it’s a miracle!” but until I lived through the process I had no idea of the scrutiny that is given to such a case. Let me briefly share with you the process. A year ago I called the Sheen Foundation to tell them James’ story, not thinking we’d end up here. Yet I retold the story to several other people involved with the Sheen Foundation, lastly speaking with the Roman postulator’s office. Finally a tribunal was called and all participating members swore to tell the truth and were sworn to secrecy. Witnesses were then called; they also promised to be honest and keep all discussions private. (You cannot discuss details with the press or write about it in your Christmas letter, for instance.) In our case, there were well over a dozen witnesses, the vast majority medical professionals. Everyone answered the same long list of questions, which were asked by a canon lawyer and clarified by a medical doctor. Every single page of James’ medical history was reviewed. New doctors examined him. Witnesses reviewed the typed transcripts of the testimonies and then signed them. The tribunal was closed at the Guadete Sunday Mass at the Peoria Cathedral.
So the next step? Well, over 500 pages of documentation were notarized, packaged, sealed, and sent to Rome. There they will be reviewed by new panels of medical and theological experts and then written into a paper arguing that what happened was indeed a miracle. If God sees fit to have Sheen declared Venerable then that paper will be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If they give it a thumbs up the cardinals will review it. If they give it a thumbs up the pope will look at it, too. If he says it was a miracle then we will all see the good Archbishop renamed “Blessed Fulton J. Sheen”. However, if at any point in this journey the tribunal or Church see a glimmer of a chance that this was not a miracle they will stop the investigation. So if the Church says something is a miracle – it is a miracle!
The last thing I wanted to share with you is the beauty and integrity of it all. During the opening ceremony for the tribunal my husband leaned over and said, “This feels so medieval.” He meant it in the absolute best way – the language used, the joyful reverence of it, everything made it seem timeless and ancient all at once. The opening and closing ceremonies, with their sealing wax, solemn vows, and focus on Truth made them extraordinary, romantic, and practical all at the same time. The people we worked with along the way all have a strong love of God and always sought the absolute truth, no matter what that would mean for our alleged miracle and the work they had done.
Often I hear the Catholic Church being criticised for being boring but I saw it to be breathtaking. Our Church leaders are sometimes accused of being cowards, liars, and glory-seekers but I saw them to be forthright, honest, and diligent. I have seen many non-believers dismiss claims of miracles in ways that make their ignorance and prejudice show brightly. On the other hand I have seen the Church use science, medicine, theology, and a pursuit of the truth to glorify God. This entire experience has greatly increased my appreciation of miracles, the Catholic Church, and the awesomeness of God. I hope the same is true for you.
“The glory of God is man fully alive.”