The Logistical and Evangelical Challenges of the Archbishop Sheen Beatification

COMMENTARY: Especially in the case of one of the greatest evangelists of his time, the evangelical dimension of a beatification is essential.

Bishop Fulton Sheen stands before a bookcase on the set of his Dumont television program.
Bishop Fulton Sheen stands before a bookcase on the set of his Dumont television program. (photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

The beatification of Venerable Fulton Sheen, delayed for several years, is now on an accelerated pace to completion. The Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, announced Nov. 18 that it had received earlier that day the decision of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints: The beatification would take place 33 days later, on Dec. 21.

A beatification on such short notice — less time than it might take to organize the annual parish picnic — is without precedent in recent decades. It will pose logistical challenges for the Diocese of Peoria, not least of which is the inability to secure a suitably large facility to accommodate the many pilgrims who want to attend, braving the possibility of the Illinois winter storm four days before Christmas. The beatification will therefore take place in Peoria’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where the body of Archbishop Sheen now rests.

But the logistical challenges are secondary to the evangelical challenges. A beatification or canonization, after all, is not really for the good of the candidate, who is already in heaven before the glory of God and in the company of the saints. It’s for the good of the Church here below, for the inspiration of the faithful, for intercession on their behalf, and for the spread of the Gospel. Especially in the case of Archbishop Sheen, one of the greatest evangelists of his time, the evangelical dimension of a beatification is essential.

A beatification or canonization with adequate preparation allows for a full array of evangelical initiatives to be executed, both for Catholics in the pew and the wider public. Pilgrimages are arranged. Biographical materials are produced, including television specials, books, commemorative magazines, newspaper inserts and leaflets for mass distribution.

Parish schools and programs highlight the life of the “Blessed.” Features are written in the Catholic and secular press. An array of joint Church and civic functions in the local place bring the new “Blessed” out of the sanctuary into the public square.

Consider how the presence of the Prince of Wales at the recent canonization of St. John Henry Newman was only the centerpiece of a week’s worth of events that made the canonization a major news event in England.

None of that will take place for Fulton Sheen.

The accelerated beatification constitutes a massive missed evangelical opportunity. Consequently, the Diocese of Peoria and the U.S. bishops will have to quickly plan a compensatory program — perhaps a “Year of Blessed Fulton Sheen” or some such initiative. That the announcement from Peoria came only days after the U.S. bishops concluded their plenary meeting in Baltimore meant that an opportunity there was missed to discuss how to cope with the accelerated beatification timeline.

Recent experience has shown how important a beatification can be for evangelizing purposes, with the beatification itself being an indelible moment of grace for those able to attend.

In 2016, the beatification of Oklahoma City’s Father Stanley Rother, a missionary martyr, was held in the local convention center, which seated 15,000. Those assembled spilled onto the local streets.

In 2017, the beatification of Solanus Casey was held at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions football stadium that holds 70,000. It was largely full.

And far beyond those on pilgrimage who attended in person, the monthslong lead-up to the ceremony made it possible for Catholics across the land — and the wider public in Oklahoma and Michigan — to be built up by the lives of the newly “Blessed.” In the case of Blessed Stanley Rother, it was particularly important, as his story was not previously well-known.

Contrasting cases in Canada make the evangelical point even more clearly.

In 2010, the canonization of St. André Bessette of Montreal — the famous Brother André of St. Joseph’s Oratory — had the usual period of preparation. More than 5,000 pilgrims went from Canada, about five times as many as can fit in Peoria’s cathedral. Canada’s foreign minister led the official delegation, making it a national, and not only ecclesial, event.

While the canonization took place in Rome, the entire Church in Canada prepared. In Montreal itself, the Congregation of the Holy Cross took out billboards and transit ads with André’s image and the simple words: “brother, friend, saint,” inviting Montrealers to reflect on what the canonization of one from their midst meant.

It was for the local Church, and the Church across Canada, an extended reflection on the key points of Brother André’s life — the heroism of daily service, the power of evangelical hospitality, trust in St. Joseph and the reality of the miraculous.

In contrast, two Canadian saints were given instant canonization in 2014; the deed was done before it was even announced. Pope Francis granted “equipollent canonization” to Francois de Laval, the first bishop of what is now Canada, and Marie de l’Incarnation, a religious who opened the first schools for native children. They are considered, according to secular history, among the founders of Quebec, and certainly of the Church in Canada.

“Equipollent canonization” means that no miracle is required. Pope Francis has used it several times, most famously for St. John XXIII, so that he could be canonized alongside St. John Paul II. There had been no miracles attributed to John XXIII since his beatification in 2000, and the Holy Father did not want John Paul to canonized without “balancing” him with another pope.

Canonization by decree means that no public ceremony is required. In the case of the Canadians, it was only announced after it was already signed. They were already saints when the news was released.

While remaining an occasion of joy, it was a significant missed opportunity. In particular, St. Francois and St. Marie were great defenders of the dignity of aboriginal Canadians. At a time when the relationship between the Church and native Canadians had become a controverted issue, the no-ceremony-at-all elevation of the two missionary saints was a major mistake, as it missed out on an opportunity to tell the full truth about the Church’s early arrival in North America.

The lesson was clearly learned in Rome. When, the following year, the Holy Father decided on another “equipollent canonization” for Blessed Junípero Serra, it was decided that a canonization ceremony would be held, as it was for John XXIII. Pope Francis canonized Junípero Serra in 2015 during his visit to Washington.

The same was done for another “equipollent canonization,” that of Joseph Vaz, the native of Goa who was a missionary in Sri Lanka. St. Joseph Vaz was canonized in Colombo in January 2015 during the papal visit to Sri Lanka.

Archbishop Sheen’s beatification schedule — one month — is not as bad as the timeline for St. Francois and St. Marie, but the result will be similar.

Fulton Sheen loved preaching the calendar, as it were. He loved to point out that there were 40 days between the Transfiguration (the mountain of glory) and the Triumph of the Cross (another mountain of glory), just as there were 40 days between Christmas and the Presentation in the Temple, or Easter and Ascension. He loved to preach that at the birth of the Lord Jesus, the daylight hours begin to lengthen (“He must increase”), while at the birth of John the Baptist, the daylight hours begin to shorten (“I must decrease”).

So there can be no doubt that, from heaven, Archbishop Sheen is thinking that the 33 days between the announcement of his beatification and the ceremony itself are a homage to years of the Lord Jesus’ life. It will be a pious consolation for the new “Blessed,” even as he watches a precious evangelical opportunity missed.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.