NEW YORK — Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s sainthood cause came to an abrupt stop Wednesday over allegations that the Archdiocese of New York reneged on agreements over Archbishop Sheen’s body. However, the archdiocese denies that it is ultimately responsible for torpedoing the process in the Diocese of Peoria, Ill.
A Sept. 3 news release from the Diocese of Peoria, whose Bishop Daniel Jenky is president of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation, announced that 12 years of work to make Archbishop Sheen a canonized saint is now relegated indefinitely to the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
“The bishop is heartbroken not only for his flock in Peoria, but also for the many supporters of the Sheen cause from throughout the world who have so generously supported Peoria’s efforts,” it said.
The beloved U.S. televangelist’s cause passed several major hurdles this year with the approval of a miracle by both medical advisers in March and theologians in June. The miracle required only the approval of a panel of cardinals and then Pope Francis in order for Archbishop Sheen to go through the beatification process.
But the beatification process cannot be completed without examining the remains of the candidate for sainthood. The diocese’s news release stated that the Vatican expected the body of Archbishop Sheen to be transferred from his tomb in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York back to the Diocese of Peoria for the official inspection and taking of first-class relics.
The Diocese of Peoria stated that the Archdiocese of New York, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, stonewalled its requests, putting an end to Sheen’s cause for the foreseeable future.
“Bishop Jenky was personally assured on several occasions by the Archdiocese of New York that the transfer of the body would take place at the appropriate time,” the statement said.
“Countless supporters, especially from the local Church in Central Illinois, have given their time, treasure and talent for this good work with the clear understanding that the body of Venerable Sheen would return to the diocese.”
The diocese later clarified in another news release that Bishop Jenky had received assurances from Cardinal Edward Egan in September 2002 and December 2004. The Register contacted the archdiocese for a response, and will update accordingly.
Issue Arose Earlier
The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria, however, have been involved in this dispute before. Back in November 2010, Archbishop Sheen’s cause ground to a halt over the dispute of which diocese would have custody of the body. According to the Peoria diocesan newspaper The Catholic Post, Bishop Jenky received personal assurances that Sheen’s body would be transferred to a tomb being prepared in the Peoria cathedral at an appropriate time. However, Cardinal Dolan, in 2010, would not give those assurances. The process moved forward after a three-month hiatus without the issues having been resolved.
Both Peoria and New York have different claims on Archbishop Sheen: Peoria was the archbishop’s boyhood home, where he was ordained a priest and briefly served as a pastor. New York, however, is where Archbishop Sheen was ordained a bishop and became a famous televangelist with his Life Is Worth Living program. Transferring Archbishop Sheen’s body to Peoria could enable the diocese to create a national shrine to him there. However, that would leave an empty tomb for Archbishop Sheen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
In a news release provided to the Register, the New York Archdiocese said that it was the wish of Archbishop Sheen and his family that his body would remain in New York.
“To date, the only official instruction that the Archdiocese of New York has received from the Holy See regarding this matter was, from a decade ago, that his body not be moved to Peoria,” it said.
However, that 2005 instruction came long before Archbishop Sheen was declared “Venerable,” in 2012, or had a miracle under scrutiny for beatification. From the Peoria Diocese’s point of view, Archbishop Sheen’s wishes over his final resting place lacked the benefit of hindsight, for he could not have anticipated the requirements of the canonization process.
Archdiocese’s Position Has Not Changed
Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese’s communications director, told the Register that the New York Archdiocese’s position has not changed since 2010 and that the Peoria Diocese’s announcement came as a surprise.
“The position of the archdiocese is the same as it was then,” he said.
“The facts were true in 2010, 2011, and they are true now.”
New York’s and Peoria’s dueling news releases, however, diverge on a key point of fact: According to Peoria, the Vatican expected the body to be transferred to Peoria for an official inspection and obtaining of first-class relics. But New York contends that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints asked the two ecclesial provinces to “enter into a dialogue to see if there was a way to continue progress in moving the cause forward.”
New York’s news release said the two key issues center on “the possible exhumation and study of the body” and the “possible collection of ‘first-class relics’ of Archbishop Sheen.”
The statement added that Cardinal Dolan “expressed hesitance” about exhuming the body, but has three conditions for allowing it:
- “The Congregation for the Causes of Saints directed that it be done,”
- “the process was approved by the family” and
- “that it be done modestly and reverently and that the exhumation met the requirements of New York state law.”
According to the statement, Cardinal Dolan “consulted with the family, who gave their approval if it would help advance the cause."
Zwilling later clarified to the Register that the archdiocese had consulted with Sheen's niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, and her son, Paul Cunningham, who enjoyed close relationships with the candidate for sainthood.
The Road Ahead
According to information released Friday by the Peoria diocese, the Sheen cause came to a standstill after the New York archdiocese's lawyer sent Bishop Jenky a June 27 letter, which, it said, “definitively stated that it would never allow the examination of the body, the securing of relics or the transfer of the body.”
The diocese added this letter was the last official communication they had with New York. As a result, it said Bishop Jenky felt he had “no choice, but to stop his efforts, and suspend the Cause,” and then inform the faithful about its status.
Zwilling confirmed that the archdiocese sent a June 27 letter to Peoria’s chancery, outlining objections to plans for exhuming Sheen’s body, but said that dialogue had progressed since then.
“Even as early this week, [diocesan officials in Peoria] were informed that if these conditions were met that we could move forward,” he said.
But the Peoria diocese told the Register that they have received no such communication, and that they have had no official communications with New York on the Sheen cause since June 27. The Register has asked Zwilling for a clarification.
Both New York and Peoria appear at an impasse, generating substantial dismay for those involved in the process.
Bonnie Engstrom is one among many Catholics who expressed disappointment at the impasse.
Engstrom had prayed for Sheen's intercession after her son was stillborn. That child, James Fulton, is now completely healthy, and was allegedly healed by a miracle through Archbishop Sheen’s intercession.
In a message to the Register via email, Enstrom said the archdiocese's position left her family “incredibly sad and confused.”
“The Archdiocese of New York turned down Sheen’s cause many years ago. They had their chance, they didn’t want it, and Peoria was very happy to do the work because of how much we love Fulton Sheen in this diocese,” she said.
Engstrom, who blogs at AKnottedLife.com, said she did “not understand how a Catholic cardinal would take issue with taking first-class relics from Venerable Sheen’s body” or why the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria could not reach an agreement “perhaps along the lines of St. Catherine of Siena,” whose head is buried in Siena and whose body is buried in Rome.
“It’s heartbreaking that the cause we are so invested in has been ended,” she said. “We firmly believe that Fulton Sheen’s works, life and writings bring people to Christ. We hope to see him as a saint very soon.”
In the Peoria news release, Bishop Jenky asked for prayers, and mentioned that some causes have “taken decades or even centuries” and that “saints are always made by God, not by man.”
The New York Archdiocese volunteered that it would “welcome the opportunity to assume responsibility for the cause in an attempt to move it forward” if Bishop Jenky’s decision to shelve the cause was definitive.
However, Father Roger Landry, the national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA, wrote Friday at the Register that a “Solomonic compromise” might be found “in Peoria’s coming to New York to examine the body and secure some first-class relics to take back to Peoria, where eventually a beatification ceremony could take place, but that the body would remain at St. Patrick’s.”
The priest said the first-class relics (parts of the body, hair or blood) are not technically necessary for beatification, but are “preferred, liturgically and devotionally” over second-class relics (personal items of the saint, clothing, etc.). Although Cardinal Dolan has ruled out dismembering Archbishop Sheen’s body for first-class relics, per the European custom, the archdiocese’s statement said there is a “strong likelihood that some relics would be present in the coffin” to share with Peoria.
“Such a process would allow the beatification cause to move forward in the Diocese of Peoria, provided that Peoria would be satisfied with a compromise and rescind its unilateral decision to suspend the cause,” Father Landry said.
Postulator: Suspension Will Be Temporary
The postulator for Archbishop Sheen’s cause in Rome expressed confidence that the dispute between Peoria and New York will only be a temporary obstacle.
The office of Andrea Ambrosi told Catholic News Agency that the archbishop’s postulator is “aware of the issue regarding the transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s remains but does not believe that this will be a lasting impediment.”
It added that Ambrosi expects “the suspension of the cause will be temporary, since there are many people still committed to this cause and the beatification of Archbishop Sheen.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.