To whom does the body of Fulton Sheen belong?

That’s a question that is now before the Supreme Court of the state of New York, as the niece of the late Archbishop Sheen, Joan Sheen Cunningham, has petitioned to have the body transferred to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Ill.

Those of us who are eager to see Venerable Fulton Sheen beatified are cautiously optimistic about this news, as it might mean a resumption of his cause for sainthood. The tale is a bit complicated.

Fulton Sheen was born in El Paso, Ill., and grew up in Peoria, where he was ordained a priest. His time in Peoria was very brief, as he spent his priesthood teaching at The Catholic University of America in Washington until his ordination as an auxiliary bishop of New York in 1951. From then on, based in New York, he traveled the country and the world as the leading media evangelist of his time. From 1966 to 1969, he was the bishop of Rochester, N.Y., after which he retired and lived in New York until he died in 1979.

In 2002, the Diocese of Peoria undertook the work of Sheen’s cause for sainthood. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria consulted at the time with Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who said that New York was not interested in undertaking the cause and encouraged Peoria to do so. The cause progressed well, and Sheen is now ready for beatification.

In 2010, Bishop Jenky suspended the cause, claiming the Archdiocese of New York was reneging on a promise — allegedly made by Cardinal Egan — to transfer Archbishop Sheen’s body to Peoria from its burial spot under the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the crypt usually reserved for the archbishops of New York. The criticism of that decision, including from many of his brother bishops in the United States, was intense, and Bishop Jenky resumed the cause some months later.

Cardinal Egan, who died last year, never confirmed that such a promise to transfer the body was ever made.

In 2014, Bishop Jenky withdrew the cause again, saying that unless New York transferred the body to Peoria, he would not permit the beatification to go forward. And there matters lay, until mid-June, when Mrs. Cunningham, 88, sided with Peoria over New York and petitioned the court for permission to move the body. Previously, she was of the view that the body should stay in New York.

Those of us with a devotion to Fulton Sheen hope that this movement — albeit a civil lawsuit — might break the impasse and that Bishop Jenky will permit the cause to advance. That remains to be seen, though, as the position of the Archdiocese of New York is that Archbishop Sheen desired to be buried in New York, until recently his family desired that his wish be honored, and the Holy See has not indicated otherwise.

In filing her civil suit, Cunningham’s lawyers are obligated to notify interested parties, which in this case are the Archdiocese of New York and the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the course of the legal language, the filing states that “no one, other than the above mentioned, is interested in this application and no other parties are entitled to notice thereof.”

This is legally true, but it raises an interesting ecclesial question: Who are the interested parties for a dead bishop who will be beatified?

There is a theological-ecclesiological answer to where Archbishop Sheen should be buried. He was the bishop of Rochester, and a diocesan bishop in the ordinary course of events is buried in the diocese to which he was “married,” sometimes in the cathedral crypt itself. That’s where Archbishop Fulton Sheen belongs by right.

However, Archbishop Sheen’s three years in Rochester were neither happy nor successful ones, and he was eager to retire from Rochester and return to New York City. Oddly enough, upon retirement, he was not simply styled the “bishop emeritus of Rochester,” but was made an archbishop and given the titular see of Newport, Wales. That unusual retirement transfer attenuated Archbishop Sheen’s link with Rochester.

There is no doubt where Archbishop Sheen wanted to be buried. His last will and testament requests burial in New York, a point conceded even in Peoria. The Cunningham filing implicitly acknowledges that a transfer to Peoria would be against Archbishop Sheen’s own wishes, when it claims that “if Archbishop Sheen knew during this lifetime that he would be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church … it would have been his wish that his remains be interred in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.”

There is no evidence of this whatsoever, and until last month, no one in the Sheen family ever mentioned it publicly. Archbishop Sheen spent the long years of his priesthood in Washington and New York, and it is utterly implausible that the great evangelist of the media culture would desire to leave New York for Peoria in death, which he did not do in life, whatever his affection for his hometown might be.

What Peoria’s promoters of his cause claim is basically that, because they did the work and bore the expense of the cause, they want to have the shrine to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. They deserve full credit for advancing the cause for the good of the Church, something which New York really ought to have done, but didn’t for lack of interest from Cardinal Egan. The position of Peoria is that Archbishop Sheen will not be beatified unless it gets the remains. The Cunningham court filing is a means of achieving just that, so that Peoria can host a beatification over Sheen’s dead body.

Back, then, to those “interested parties.” There is, of course, Archbishop Sheen himself, who wanted to be buried in New York, his home by apostolate, episcopal ordination and residence. The archbishop, the great preacher of this time, desired to be buried in the caput mundi, the capital of the world.

The late Cardinal Terrence Cooke, who was archbishop of New York when Archbishop Sheen died, had the pastoral wisdom to want the archbishop buried in St. Patrick’s, a place where he had often preached. There is an oral tradition in New York that Cardinal Cooke had discussed this with Archbishop Sheen after the latter’s famous meeting with St. John Paul II in St. Patrick’s two months before Archbishop Sheen died, but there is no confirming evidence of this.

Then there is the Church itself, which, though legally acting through various dioceses, is not just those dioceses. In the case of saints proposed to the faithful for veneration and intercession, it would seem odd that the final decision about the mortal remains should rest exclusively with the family or relatives, especially almost 40 years after the death.

Who speaks for the pilgrims who would desire to visit Archbishop Sheen’s tomb and pray there? Who speaks for those who would not set out to visit the tomb, but whom Providence might bring there to experience actual graces?

In Archbishop Sheen’s case, those questions are more pertinent than might be the case in other causes. Though the Archdiocese of New York is not making the argument, it is the case that the number of pilgrims who might visit Archbishop Sheen’s remains in St. Patrick’s in a given week would exceed those who would do so in Peoria in a year. It is no insult to Peoria to observe that it is not the caput mundi — that, after all, is why Archbishop Sheen went there and chose to remain there, even in death.

I am an “interested party,” too, though without legal standing. I visit Archbishop Sheen’s tomb in St. Patrick’s every time I am able to do so when visiting New York. I prayed there a few months ago, asking for his intercession before preaching the “Seven Last Words” on Good Friday just above him. I am not alone in hoping that one of the first global preachers might remain in the capital of the world.

New York has offered to send the body to Peoria for the beatification ceremony, with the understanding it would return to New York after an “appropriate amount of time.” Whatever the arrangement, may the beatification proceed.

Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.