PEORIA, Ill. — On June 14, the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received a potential reprieve from the stalemate that stalled it.
The Diocese of Peoria, Ill., announced “with great joy” that the family of Archbishop Fulton Sheen petitioned the Supreme Court of New York state to allow his remains to be transferred to Peoria.
Up to this point, the Peoria Diocese and the Archdiocese of New York, where Sheen is entombed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both laid claim to his remains. The cause for his beatification could not move along until a settlement was reached, even though the miracle needed for his beatification had already been approved by the Vatican’s commissions of theologians and medical examiners in 2014.
The beatification process cannot be completed without examining the remains of a candidate for sainthood, and, in 2014, the Diocese of Peoria indicated that the Vatican expected the body of Archbishop Sheen to be transferred to Peoria for the official inspection and taking of first-class relics. But at that time, the Archdiocese of New York declined to agree to transfer the body.
Now, thanks to Sheen’s living relatives, the cause might soon be under way again.
Supported by her siblings, Joan Sheen Cunningham — Archbishop Sheen’s niece and oldest living relative, whose father was Sheen’s brother Joseph — filed the necessary paperwork to carry out the transfer of his body from New York to Illinois, which can be done as soon as the court grants approval.
The Peoria Diocese released a statement noting that Bishop Daniel Jenky is immensely grateful for the collaboration of Mrs. Cunningham and the family. When the archbishop’s body is transferred, Bishop Jenky can resume the cause for beatification.
Peoria also reported that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints “has no objection to the transfer and looks forward to the resumption of the cause.”
Although Archbishop Sheen lived in New York City before being named bishop of Rochester, N.Y., from where he retired, he had strong ties to the Peoria Diocese.
He was born in El Paso, Ill., but his parents subsequently moved to nearby Peoria, where he grew up closely attached to St. Mary’s Cathedral. Sheen and his brothers attended the cathedral’s primary school, and the cathedral was where he made his first Communion, served regularly as an altar boy, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria in 1919 and offered his first solemn Mass.
After studies in Europe, he carried on priestly ministry in the diocese, until he was allowed to teach at The Catholic University of America in Washington for 30 years.
He continued to visit St. Mary’s Cathedral frequently, and his parents are buried in the Catholic cemetery near the cathedral.
Because of the ongoing impasse, Cunningham, the 88-year-old niece, filed papers on June 13 with the New York Supreme Court to grant her permission to remove her uncle’s remains from the crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for transfer and interment in a crypt in St. Mary’s Cathedral and to direct the Archdiocese of New York to permit this removal and transfer.
After Archbishop Sheen died on Dec. 9, 1979, it was to Cunningham — who remained close to her uncle throughout her life and who represents his family on the board of directors of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation — that New York’s Cardinal Terence Cooke asked permission to bury her uncle in St. Patrick’s.
The New York Archdiocese has not taken a formal role in pursuing the cause for canonization.
In fact, the petition contains a letter from the late Cardinal Edward Egan, then archbishop of New York, to Bishop Jenky in 2002, in which he stated: “Be assured that I would have no objection whatsoever to the opening of the cause in the Diocese of Peoria. Indeed, inasmuch as Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a native of the Diocese of Peoria, served his first pastoral assignment in the city of Peoria and is the most renowned of your diocesan clergy, I believe that the Diocese of Peoria is the ideal diocese to initiate a cause for canonization.”
Archdiocese of New York
Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, released an official statement after Cunningham’s court petition, saying the archdiocese “is pleased to learn that there appears to be progress for the cause of the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, a cause for which we have all worked hard.”
“Several weeks ago, the archdiocese, with the advice and consent of Joan Sheen Cunningham, the late archbishop’s beloved niece, put forward a proposal that would balance the personal wish of Archbishop Sheen to be permanently buried beneath the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the understandable desire of the Diocese of Peoria to have his earthly remains present in their diocese for the celebration of his long-hoped-for beatification,” Zwilling continued.
He said the archdiocese asked that Peoria “officially reopen the cause, with the understanding that the archbishop’s earthly remains would then be sent to Peoria for a beatification ceremony as soon as one was announced, and then returned after an appropriate time to the crypt beneath the high altar of St. Patrick’s.”
Zwilling added: “While we will need some time to review the petition that was announced today by the Diocese of Peoria, it is definitely encouraging that the Diocese of Peoria seems ready to reopen the cause so that the much-desired process towards beatification and canonization can resume.”
But according to Msgr. James Kruse, vicar general of the Peoria Diocese, Archbishop Sheen requested in his will, which is public, to be buried at Calvary Cemetery in New York.
“Cardinal Cooke approached Joan and acknowledged she was the next of kin. He asked her: Could he please have her permission to honor her uncle and have him entombed at the high altar in St. Patrick’s? She said, ‘Yes.’” Cunningham testified to this in her petition to the court.
Msgr. Kruse pointed out the important fact that, she is still his closest living relative, and “if she had the authority in 1979, she certainly has the empowerment to make this decision and request today. So connected to the archdiocese’s statement yesterday, his long desire to be buried at St. Patrick’s is not true.”
Msgr. Kruse said the other inaccuracy in the statement is that Cunningham was agreeable to a solution proposed by the Archdiocese of New York. However, she was not.
Still, after the beatification takes place, there will be relics for veneration in shrines in both Peoria and New York.
Vice Postulator’s Hopes
Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal has been the vice postulator for the cause for canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen from the very beginning.
On hearing the latest news, he told the Register, “This gives hope that the cause may be able to continue and lead right up to beatification very quickly, if all things go well.”
Host of EWTN’s Sunday Night Prime, Father Apostoli was ordained a priest by Archbishop Sheen when he was in the Rochester Diocese. He sees the significance and importance of beatification in the near future.
“He was a man committed to the truth, and we need to hear that truth once again,” explained Father Apostoli. “He was a man who loved America and certainly defended the Judeo-Christian values that our country was built on, mainly, the sanctity of all life from conception to natural death; the sanctity of the gift of sexuality — God created them male and female; the sanctity of marriage and family life and its importance to our society; and, finally, the freedom of religion basic to our American heritage.”
Added Father Apostoli, “He was a prophet for our time. May we someday be able to proclaim him ‘Blessed’ and, God willing, St. Fulton Sheen.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.