The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria are wrangling like spoiled children over who gets a prized toy. In this case, however, the “toy” in question is the body of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
The cause to raise Sheen to sainthood in the Catholic Church was begun in 2002 by the Diocese of Peoria, the city where he was educated at St. Mary’s Cathedral School, served as an altar boy at the cathedral, and was ordained a priest in 1919. It is near his birthplace of El Paso, Illinois. In other words, this is Sheen’s home turf. Furthermore, when the idea of beginning the process with the hope that Sheen would be named a saint, the late Cardinal Edward Egan of New York told Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria that in terms of promoting Sheen’s cause for sainthood, “you are the ideal diocese.” In other words, New York passed the ball to Peoria. And ever since, Peoria has run with it.
The Catholic Church’s canonization process does not exactly fall into the category of common knowledge, and even many cradle Catholics aren’t entirely sure how it works, and why it works the way it does. At the risk of over-simplification, the Church tries to prove two things, the heroic virtue, or incredible holiness, of the person in question, and to make certain that there is not a hint of error or even, God forbid, fraud in the proceedings.
I’ll spare you the complicated preliminary details of the process and get down the two essential stages: granting the individual the title “Blessed,” and then the title “Saint.” Before either title can be awarded, there must be what is known formally as an inexplicable healing. In other words, a miracle. Reports of such events are examined very, very carefully by clergy and a medical panel. In the matter of Sheen, the panel examined the case of an infant who had no heartbeat and no respiration at birth, and then, through the intercession, the prayers, of Archbishop Sheen, the child had a heartbeat and could breathe. In 2014, the panel of medical experts voted unanimously that this was a miraculous healing. And that’s when things got a bit sticky.
The next step was to exhume the archbishop’s casket and examine the body for a final identification of the remains. Following a positive identification, Sheen would be declared Blessed at a ceremony in the Peoria cathedral, and his body would be enshrined there.
That’s when the Archdiocese of New York stepped in. Suddenly, twelve years after it had handed the Sheen cause to Peoria, New York decided that the relics of the soon-to-be-Blessed Sheen should remain in the tomb in the crypt under the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And on this point the Trustees of the cathedral would not budge.
In response, Bishop Jenky of Peoria played his trump card: if Sheen’s remains were not coming to Peoria, then he was suspending the entire process. The voluminous documentation of the cause would be shelved in the Vatican archives, and the beatification put off indefinitely. Well, not quite indefinitely. If New York sent Sheen home, the cause would be restored and the beatification ceremony would proceed.
So the archdiocese and the diocese went to court. In response to a petition from Joan Sheen Cunningham, Sheen’s 88-year-old niece and executor of his estate, to bring her uncle’s body to Peoria, Justice Arlene P. Bluth of the New York Supreme Court ruled that there is a “good and substantial reason” for Sheen’s remains to be enshrined in Peoria.
Done deal, right? Not so fast. Sheen, who spent so many years in New York and died there in 1979, had purchased a plot in New York’s Calvary Cemetery and in his will expressed a desire to be buried there. The late Cardinal Terence Cooke wanted to bury Sheen in the crypt of St. Patrick’s, and Mrs. Cunningham gave her permission. But Justice Bluth pointed out that Sheen never asked to be entombed in St. Patrick’s.
To no one’s surprise, New York has filed an appeal.
For most of the 20th century, Sheen was one of the great lights of the Catholic Church in America. He was a convert-maker extraordinaire who brought into the Church people as diverse as Fritz Kreisler, the violin virtuoso, Clare Booth Luce, the former Congresswoman, author, and wife of Time magazine’s publisher Henry Luce, and even Louis Budenz, managing editor of the Communist organ, the Daily Worker. For 22 years, millions tuned in to listen to his radio program, “The Catholic Hour.” In 1952 he made the leap to television with Life Is Worth Living. One year he was nominated for the Emmy’s Most Outstanding Television Personality award. Sheen was up against Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, and Edward R. Murrow. But at the end of the night, the Emmy went home with the bishop.
That custody of the body of a potential saint is being fought over in a courtroom can only be described as cringe-worthy. To be candid, I blame New York. After letting Peoria do all the heavy lifting for twelve years, at the last minute they say, “Whoops! We’ve changed our minds.” It is an embarrassment for American Catholics. It disgraces the memory of Archbishop Sheen. And it makes the Trustees of St. Patrick’s look like a passel of spoiled brats.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly.