The battle over the bishop’s body continues. A court in New York ruled last month that Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s closest surviving relative, his niece Joan Sheen Cunningham, could transfer her uncle’s body to Peoria, Illinois. The Diocese of Peoria, which prepared the cause for Sheen’s beatification, has declared that unless it gets the body of the late bishop, it will not permit the beatification to proceed. Sheen is currently buried in the crypt under the high altar in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and the trustees of St. Patrick’s have appealed the court ruling.
The facts are relatively straightforward: Archbishop Sheen, despite having been the bishop of Rochester, New York, where custom would have dictated that he be buried, asked to be buried in New York City. Upon his death in 1979, Cardinal Terrence Cooke decided to bury Sheen in St. Patrick’s. Peoria submits that Sheen, had he known that he would be beatified, would have wanted to be buried in Peoria, where the diocese has prepared a shrine for his body in the cathedral.
The Sheen family, in the person of Mrs. Cunningham, did not support moving the body from St. Patrick’s to Peoria until last summer. The reason for the change of mind? It is unknown, but given that she is 88 and Peoria refuses to let the cause proceed until it gets the body, it is not unreasonable to think that Mrs. Cunningham considered that if she wished to witness her uncle’s beatification before she dies, it would have to be on Peoria’s terms.
Having lost the first round in civil court, the trustees of St. Patrick’s have appealed the decision. They will argue that Sheen himself wanted to be buried in New York, and that his beatification is all the more reason to keep him there, given the vastly greater number of pilgrims who could pray at his tomb.
My own sense is that Sheen should stay in New York, as I wrote earlier this year. This latest court battle suggests some other observations.
First, Catholics who might be disappointed that Peoria has taken this matter into the civil courts should recall that “fighting” over the bodies of saints is a venerable Catholic tradition. In history, having the relics of saints was advantageous in the commerce of pilgrimage. Peoria has a rather different pecuniary perspective. The diocese is not looking to make money, but argues, not unreasonably, that it paid for the cause to proceed and, therefore, should get the shrine.
There is a reason why the head of St. Catherine is in Siena, while her body remains in Rome. Or that the arm of St. Francis Xavier is in Rome, while his body remains in Goa. The Solomonic solution of cutting the baby in half makes possible in death what is not in life.
Pilgrims in Assisi might wonder why St. Francis is buried under several tons of 13th-century concrete; it was to prevent his body from being stolen by neighboring towns. That Peoria went to court rather than broke into the crypt to grab the body is a sign of progress over the centuries. Grave-robbing in the service of Catholic piety is traditional, but not a venerable tradition.
Yet to have the battle for Sheen’s body in civil courts is not without problems. Civil courts rule according to civil laws. And the civil laws are drawn up with ordinary circumstances in mind, not the principles that are in play in a case like Fulton Sheen’s. No disrespect intended to Mrs. Cunningham, but there are many interested parties other than Sheen’s niece in the disposition of his body. Fulton Sheen himself entitled his book about the priesthood, The Priest Is Not His Own. He would likely agree that the bishop is not his niece’s.
Sheen’s cause illustrates a relatively new phenomenon in the Church — the role of the family in the case of recent blesseds and saints. When the old 50-year waiting period was in effect for causes to be introduced, it was quite likely that close family members were long dead by the time of a beatification, and so those who had the body could do as they thought best without other considerations being taken into account.
In the case of religious orders, it was even easier, as the vow of poverty indicated that the order was responsible for the livelihood of its members, including care of the body after death. With recent saints, especially priests who are not part of religious orders, and even more so in the case of lay saints, the matter is more complex.
Consider Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who, after his beatification in 1990, was transferred to the cathedral in Turin, Italy. That was worked out with his surviving relatives, principally his niece, as he died before marrying.
When Gianna Beretta Molla was beatified and canonized, the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy, expressed interest in having her remains moved to a church or shrine. Her surviving husband preferred that she remain buried with family members. In her case, the wishes of the widower won out, quite reasonably. A key difference is that St. Gianna was married with direct descendants. Blessed Pier Giorgio was not. A hundred years from now, perhaps the surviving descendants will no longer be able, or interested, in keeping a proper shrine at the family grave, and St. Gianna might be moved.
What, then, to do with Archbishop Sheen? If the appellate court were to insist that Sheen’s own express wishes be honored, then it would seem Sheen should be buried in a Catholic cemetery in the Archdiocese of New York. But nobody thinks that moving Sheen to an ordinary graveyard would be a good idea. So the court will have to evaluate the unusual circumstances with more imagination than is usually required in such cases. Courts, though, are ill-suited for imaginative solutions, which belong to the executive and legislative branches.
It would be best, of course, if the matter could be amicably solved by the parties involved, New York and Peoria. Failing that, it would seem that another venerable Catholic tradition will provide the solution — patience. Some problems are best solved by waiting, and disputes over the causes of saints are classic candidates for that.
Causes of saints can wait, and Sheen has not even been dead 40 years. By the 50th anniversary of his death — 2029 — there will likely be a new bishop in Peoria and new trustees for St. Patrick’s.
Where exactly the body of Fulton Sheen will finally rest is not clear today, though it would seem that the best argument is that he remain where he is, at St. Patrick’s, in the city he chose as his home. The permanent solution is already clear, even if getting there will require more time and creativity.
A future St. Fulton, patron saint of preachers, the media and media preachers, will rest in St. Patrick’s in a special shrine, most likely the Lady Chapel in the apse. There will be a secondary shrine, with relics, at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, near The Catholic University of America, where he taught for so long. And there will be the shrine in Peoria’s cathedral, also with relics, the diocese of his childhood and ordination. A Solomonic solution — currently opposed by all parties — will, in time, be achieved.
When? Both Sheen’s virtues and his miracle have already been approved, so we can confidently consider him in heaven. His intercession can be sought, as the resolution of his remains on earth might require another miracle still.
is editor in chief of Convivum magazine.