As he lay dying of cancer in his northeast St. Petersburg apartment almost nine years ago, Paul Cicarelli solicited a promise from his daughter. He asked her to continue his campaign to get the late host of a religious television show named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
Every night in the years since, Diane Cicarelli, 28, has repeated the prayer her father wrote as part of his effort. Last week, she learned of a national movement that's pursuing the very cause that consumed her father in his waning days.
On Jan. 24, the organization will offer a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg for the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who hosted a popular television program, Life Is Worth Living, from 1951 to 1957. Sheen, praised by the Rev. Billy Graham as one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, won an Emmy for the program that can still be seen locally on cable on the EWTN Global Catholic Network.
The St. Petersburg service is one of several scheduled around the country in coming months. The next will be in February, in New Orleans. Jane Peverly, who works for the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria, Ill., said the Masses are being offered in places with a high interest in Sheen's canonization. Father Stanley Deptula, executive director of the foundation, which was formed in 1998 and is sponsored by the Diocese of Peoria, will celebrate the Mass at St. Jude's. Father Andrew Apostoli of Yonkers, N.Y., who was ordained by Sheen, will deliver the homily.
Over the years, the foundation has gathered information from around the United States and the world to promote Sheen's sainthood. Evidence includes two alleged medical miracles attributed to the late archbishop's intercession with God. Early last year, the organization sent 6,500 pages of material supporting Sheen's cause to the Vatican for review.
There's a reason for pursuing sainthood for Sheen, said Bill Engelbrecht, director of advancement for the Diocese of Peoria.
"As you can imagine, the Catholic Church has, obviously, many saints who become inspirations for future generations of people. Bishop Sheen, we believe, was certainly a tremendous influence in the Catholic Church throughout his lifetime,'' he said.
"Most importantly, there's an entire generation of younger Catholics who have not had an opportunity to hear Bishop Sheen or be exposed to Bishop Sheen. We just believe that what he said, what he did, is something that would be terribly important to expose to a new generation of younger Catholics. … Nothing is automatic, nothing is necessarily going to happen, but we certainly have people who believe in this cause.''
Canonization can take decades, if not hundreds of years, though the groundswell of support for the late Pope John Paul II may speed up the process that could see the popular pontiff declared a saint. The procedure follows strict protocol, starting with a thorough examination of the life of the proposed saint. Candidates who pass initial scrutiny are given the title of "venerable." The next stage, "beatification," requires at least one approved miracle, except in the case of martyrs. The final step, sainthood, is conferred only after yet another miracle has been verified after beatification.
Sheen was born in rural Illinois in 1895 and grew up and was educated in Peoria, where he was ordained a priest. He became a well-known scholar of philosophy and theology as well as a media personality whose teachings attracted both Catholics and non-Catholics. He served as bishop of Rochester, N.Y. He died in 1979 and is buried under the high altar in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Official work to promote his canonization began in the Diocese of Peoria in 2002.
Two years earlier, in St. Petersburg, as he struggled with lung cancer, Paul Cicarelli, 53, had begun his own campaign on Sheen's behalf, launching a Web site and distributing prayer cards and fliers to area churches. A former freelance television producer, he asked people to pray that the late archbishop would intercede with God on his behalf so that he would be cured of cancer. Such a miracle, he hoped, would help his campaign for Sheen's sainthood. Specifically, the St. Petersburg man hoped Sheen would be named patron saint of the media.
"Regardless of whether I get a healing or not, it's important to foster this work. I believe God gave it to me at least to bring it to this point," he said shortly before his death.
His five children promised to continue the cause. Diane Cicarelli has continued to say the special prayer her father wrote for Sheen's cause.
"My dad asked me to,'' she said. "This was something he was passionate about.''
Until last week, she had been unaware of the national movement.
"It initially surprised me. But nothing is impossible through God,'' said Cicarelli, who lives in Orlando.
"I'm going to try to come to the Mass just to hear more about it, because I know it was important to my dad, so it is important to me.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.