Archbishop Sheen's Cause Advances
PEORIA, Ill. — The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen may be one step closer to being declared a saint.
Three years after Archbishop Sheen's cause for beatification was officially opened, a medical tribunal has been set up to investigate the claims of a “favor” that a family feels it obtained through the intercession of this “Servant of God.”
“A medical tribunal was opened in the Diocese of Peoria in the month of September,” said Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Andrew Apostoli, vice postulator for the cause. “A family feels they received an extraordinary favor through the prayers and intercession of Archbishop Sheen.”
Father Apostoli told the Register that a woman who had undergone an operation had complications, and was not expected to live. Her husband said that he prayed specifically to Archbishop Sheen during the two hours that his wife was in the operating room.
“When she survived, the family felt they had received a special favor,” said Father Apostoli. “All of this, from the medical point of view, will be investigated.”
Father Apostoli declined to reveal any other details of the case.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation chairman Walter Miller said that the medical case is one of two that are being investigated.
The favor involving the woman who almost died after an operation has already been forwarded to Rome, “but we think both are worthy,” said Miller. “In January, the diocesan tribunal will meet regarding the second one.” No details were available about the latter case.
Meanwhile, the diocesan inquiry into the famous radio and television evangelist's life continues.
“Witnesses have been testifying to his life and his virtue,” said Msgr. Richard Soseman, episcopal delegate with the tribunal investigating the cause. Msgr. Soseman reviews all facets of the investigation on behalf of Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky. One of the tribunal's chief roles is collecting the testimony of those who knew Archbishop Sheen or who are experts.
Since the opening of Archbishop Sheen's cause, the Diocese of Peoria has interviewed approximately 35 of a total of 200 individuals. Additional interviews will be conducted with witnesses in England, where Archbishop Sheen taught, and in Ireland, where he frequently preached and led retreats.
“The endeavor is made to find witnesses who are both positive and negative,” added Msgr. Soseman.
The final decision comes from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. It's the postulator's job to sift through the evidence, both in support of and against the candidate. Andrea Ambrosi is serving as the postulator for Archbishop Sheen's cause. Ambrosi also serves as the postulator for Cardinal John Henry Newman and Father Patrick Peyton, among others.
As with any candidate, Archbishop Sheen's life has come under intense scrutiny.
In a 2002 review in Crisis magazine of Thomas Reeves’ biography, America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton Sheen, Joseph Bottum noted Archbishop Sheen's feuds with Cardinal Francis Spellman, former Archbishop of New York, and the “divinity doctorate that Sheen falsely claimed to have earned and continued to claim long after it ceased to have any importance to his career.”
According to Reeves’ research, Sheen invented an S.T.D., which appeared after his name in 1928 and remained on his letterhead until 1966.
“There's something about Sheen that's hard to pin down — something that both excites one's admiration and strains one's charity,” wrote Bottum. “He was, without doubt, a great man, but it was, somehow, a thin kind of greatness: greatness as conceived by the impoverished imagination of the 1950s.”
Sheen biographer and historian Kathleen Riley doesn't think the allegations will hinder Archbishop Sheen's cause.
“Saints aren't supposed to be perfect,” said Riley, associate professor of history at Ohio Dominican University and author of Fulton J. Sheen: An American Catholic Response to the Twentieth Century.
Riley noted that Archbishop Sheen's secretary, Msgr. John Ellis, wrote of Archbishop Sheen's one character flaw being vanity.
“Given his many talents, that's understandable,” said Riley.
Riley pointed to Archbishop Sheen's three years as bishop of Rochester, N.Y.
“That was an extremely painful experience for him,” said Riley. “Everything else he had tried he had succeeded at quite well. In Rochester, he met setbacks. He asked to retire after three years, and he learned from it. He spent the last decade of his life giving priestly retreats.”
Behind the cause for beatification is the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. The foundation's role is to spread the word and work of Fulton Sheen, and promote and raise funds for the cause.
The path to modern-day canonization is expensive. Miller acknowledged that the cost for promotion, and the necessary investigation and tribunals can run upwards of $1 million.
“The process is more expensive for Archbishop Sheen because of the large number of witnesses involved,” said Miller, “and because he was so prolific in his writings, which must be translated and forwarded to Rome.”
In addition to the gathering of testimony, the tribunal also has a historical commission and theological censors. The historical commission examines the archives. The theological censors examine Archbishop Sheen's work — more than 70 books, as well as numerous audio — and videotapes.
One of the ways the foundation is promoting Archbishop Sheen's work is through the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Military Prayerbook Campaign. To date, the foundation has distributed nearly 50,000 of Archbishop Sheen's pocket-sized prayer books — originally published during World War II — for servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Because of the shortage of Catholic military chaplains, the prayer book has been in high demand.
“They are filling an enormous need,” said Father Apostoli. “We received a letter from a soldier who had been unable to receive holy Communion the last time he was in Iraq. He found the prayer book a comfort.”
The foundation continues to hear from individuals who have been affected by Archbishop Sheen's words.
“We receive many testimonies from individuals who were drawn to him through radio or television,” said Father Apostoli. “We just received a beautiful testimony from a man who was a prisoner and had been converted during a Christmas retreat the archbishop had given.”
No one knows how long the cause will take.
“The Congregation for the Causes of Saints stresses that we try to be prompt,” said Msgr. Soseman. “Within a few years we hope to have what we need.”
Msgr. Soseman added that the interest in Archbishop Sheen's cause has heightened interest in the canonization process diocese-wide.
“We've received many calls from people wondering how to establish causes, but who don't know how to go about it,” said Msgr. Soseman. “The Second Vatican Council told us that we should all try to be saints … that holiness should be everyday. It's been interesting for me to see that there are many possible candidates out there.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
- November 13-19, 2005