The Lamentable Decision to Suspend Sheen’s Cause


My social-media accounts lit up two nights ago with the shocking news that the cause for the canonization of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen — the greatest evangelist in American Catholic history, whose television and radio programs, retreats, meditations and books have had a tremendous impact on multiple generations — had been suspended.

At first, I thought it had to be a joke, perhaps a satire from the folks at Eye of the Tiber. When I read the press release from the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., however, I wasn’t laughing. I was sickened, and not just at the suspension of the cause, but at the reason given for the suspension.

The communiqué described the “immense sadness” of Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, who was “heartbroken” to announce the suspension of the process “for the foreseeable future.” It was all the more painful, he said, because “there was every indication” that Sheen’s beatification might have taken place “as early as the coming year.” Now, the cause would “have to be relegated to the Congregation [for the Causes of Saints]’s historic archive” in the Vatican.  

What was the reason? The press release makes the Archdiocese of New York, and by implication its leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, out to be the villain, saying it was because “the Archdiocese of New York denied Bishop Jenky’s request to move the body to Peoria” to inspect it, which is a routine part of any cause so that relics from the body might be taken in anticipation of beatification. It further implied that New York had broken its word, declaring, “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.”

But what the press release didn’t say was that the call to suspend the cause was wholly and entirely the free decision of Bishop Jenky and the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation that he leads. The inspection of Archbishop Sheen’s body and the acquisition of some first-class relics could certainly take place in New York City, where Archbishop Sheen’s body is interred in the archbishops’ crypt underneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The suspension of the cause and the publication of the shocking press statement seem to me to be plain attempts publicly to pressure Cardinal Dolan to acquiesce to transferring Archbishop Sheen’s remains to Peoria’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The Diocese of Peoria’s interests seem to be less in seeing Archbishop Sheen beatified and more in erecting a shrine for him with his remains in its own cathedral. If New York won’t agree to transfer his body, then Peoria will unilaterally shut down the cause for canonization. That is cause for “immense sadness” indeed.

The Diocese of Peoria has, unfortunately, tried this public shaming before, to no avail. On Nov. 3, 2010, it announced that it had suspended the cause “due to questions with the Archdiocese of New York regarding Archbishop Sheen’s mortal remains.”

Twelve weeks later, however, it pleased Sheen devotees across the country by resuscitating the process. In a Jan. 27, 2011 statement, Peoria Chancellor Patricia Gibson stated, “Bishop Jenky felt compelled to initiate the pause in light of the months of unresolved questions regarding the transfer of the remains. Even though this issue remains unsettled, Bishop Jenky received encouragement from cardinals, bishops and the faithful from around the world, and especially from within his own diocese … even as he has now definitively continued the foundation’s work to advance Archbishop Sheen’s cause.”

Unfortunately, “definitively,” it seems, didn’t mean all the way to completion.

In Peoria’s statement announcing the cause’s resumption, it again publicly questioned the integrity of leaders in the Archdiocese of New York, describing “the failure of the Archdiocese of New York to fulfill the promised transfer of remains to Peoria.”

That led New York chancellor Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo to write his counterpart in Peoria a letter, one whose contents Cardinal Dolan would make public on his blog a couple of weeks later.

Msgr. Mustaciuolo stated that Archbishop Dolan had written Bishop Jenky on Oct. 23, 2010, saying that the archbishop’s investigation had “revealed that there was in fact no evidence of such a verbal promise; that Archbishop Sheen’s last will and testament expressed a desire for burial in New York; that Archbishop Sheen had gratefully accepted Cardinal Terence Cooke’s invitation for interment in the crypt beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral traditionally reserved for its archbishops; that the Congregation for [Causes of] Saints had, in 2005, explicitly instructed Cardinal Edward Egan, then-archbishop of New York, not to transfer the remains; and that Archbishop Sheen’s family was strong in its preference that his remains stay in place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

While Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization has advanced in the interim, with the 2012 acceptance by Pope Benedict of a decree about his “heroic virtue” and the twofold acceptance of a miracle earlier this year by Vatican panels of doctors and theologians, there seems to have been no movement with regard to the dispute about his remains.

What are Catholics, especially those who are devoted to Archbishop Sheen and want to see his beatification and, God-willing, eventual canonization move forward, supposed to think about this controversy?

Those devoted to Archbishop Sheen owe Bishop Jenky and the Sheen Foundation immense gratitude for their 12 years of hard work on his cause for canonization. Because Archbishop Sheen died in New York and was buried there, it was the Archdiocese of New York that had the canonical right to introduce Sheen’s cause. But they formally refused to do so early last decade, for various reasons. That’s when Peoria, in whose diocese Sheen was born, grew up and was ordained, stepped up to the plate to ensure that the cause would go forward despite New York’s decision not to pursue it.

Together with the Sheen Foundation, the diocese paid for all of the enormous costs associated with the cause, supplied canonists to marshal the process and do interviews, including in the Big Apple, and, in short, shouldered the entire effort.

The Peoria Diocese also has a great museum dedicated to Archbishop Sheen’s memory in its Spaulding Pastoral Center and has a beautiful spot picked out in the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria, where Archbishop Sheen used to serve Mass and where he was ordained a priest, in which the faithful would be able one day to venerate his remains.

But all of that hard, heroic work and dedication doesn’t entitle them to Sheen’s remains. 

Archbishop Sheen had indicated that he wanted to be buried in a simple plot in a New York cemetery, but Cardinal Terence Cooke offered that he be interred in St. Patrick’s. He expressed no desire to be buried back in Peoria or even in Rochester, N.Y., where he had been the diocesan bishop. While those desires do not necessarily have to be the only or final word, they ought to carry significant weight. 

It’s totally understandable that Bishop Jenky and the faithful of Peoria would want their native son’s remains returned — after all, who wouldn’t want to have the remains of a blessed as a point of veneration in the heart of one’s local Church? — and especially so, after all the diligence and dollars in pushing his cause.

But it’s also totally understandable why Cardinal Dolan would not want to send the remains of (we pray) a future saint back to Peoria, but, rather, make them a focal point of veneration within St. Patrick’s where, if his tomb is moved out of the crypt into a fitting ambulatory shrine, many more people will be able to pray before his remains in a month than would be able to venerate him in a year in Central Illinois.

What are we to make of Peoria’s repeated declarations about New York’s failure to fulfill a commitment to transfer the remains to Peoria? It’s hard to say much of anything because, as Msgr. Mustaciuolo stated, there is no written evidence of any such agreement, and there has never been any specificity on the part of Peoria as to who committed to what on the part of the archdiocese.

On the one hand, it’s impossible to imagine that Bishop Jenky would be inventing that assertion; but on the other hand, it’s possible to conceive that he misunderstood conversations he had with senior archdiocesan officials. It seems pretty clear from what we do know that Cardinal Dolan has firmly resisted the transferal of the remains since he took over as archbishop in 2009 and that he doesn’t consider that a reversal of previous policy.

Msgr. Mustaciuolo’s statement that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints instructed Cardinal Egan in 2005 not to transfer remains would seem to be the description of a normal letter the congregation would send about any translation while a process was ongoing — lest anyone presume by the exhumation a favorable indication that the cause will be successful — rather than something that would permanently forbid any transfer.

Where would a Solomonic compromise lie if the archdiocese refuses to transfer the body and Peoria refuses to proceed with the cause except with the body?

It would seem to be 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 examination of the body means simply the identification of the remains. In situations of doubt as to where someone was buried, this is an important step; for someone publicly buried in the presence of many witnesses and kept securely in a church crypt, it’s pro forma.

The acquisition of relics is needed for the beatification ceremony because during the liturgical rite the mortal remains of the new beatus are solemnly brought forward to be venerated. Technically, first-class relics (parts of the person’s body, hair or blood) are not necessary for beatification; second-class relics (those things that the person used, like his clothing) suffice. But first-class relics are preferred, both liturgically and devotionally.

In a Sept. 4 statement, Joseph Zwilling speaking on behalf of the Archdiocese of New York, said that the two dioceses are in dialogue with regard to the exhumation and examination of the body and the possible collection of first-class relics. It stated that Cardinal Dolan wants to ensure that the exhumation be done at the express direction of the congregation, with the permission of the family, according to New York law and modestly and reverently.

As to modesty and reverence, the statement said Cardinal Dolan objects “to the dismemberment of the archbishop’s body,” taking parts of his corpus back to Illinois, something to which European Catholics have been accustomed over the centuries, where a saint’s head or arms or heart may be separated from the body and distributed to various places associated with the saint’s life.

That shouldn’t be necessary, the New York release added, because when the body is exhumed, “there is the strong likelihood that some relics would be present in the coffin, which could be reverently collected without disturbing the body and then shared generously with the Diocese of 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.

Even though Archbishop Sheen’s body would remain in New York, since Peoria is the competent diocese promoting the cause, it would ordinarily be the place where a beatification Mass would take place, presided by the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, something that would doubtless be one of the great events in the history of any diocese and a fitting conclusion to all of Peoria’s work. 

But if the Diocese of Peoria isn’t satisfied with the compromise and instead continues to stall the process, hoping to foment pressure on the archdiocese to transport Archbishop Sheen’s body, the New York Archdiocese said in its statement it would “welcome the opportunity to assume responsibility for the cause in an attempt to move it forward, if such were in accord with the Diocese of Peoria and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.”

The New York press release echoed Bishop Jenky’s invitation to pray that “God’s will be made manifest” considering the beatification. The Church’s theology basically presumes that it is the Holy Spirit who fosters a person’s reputation for sanctity and the faithful’s devotion to him or her, making, on some level, causes for canonization basically inevitable for those whom the Holy Spirit wants to propose as examples and intercessors for the faithful.

It seems “manifest” through the miracle already approved by the Vatican that it is the Holy Spirit that is the ultimate actor behind Archbishop Sheen’s cause. To oppose it, or put up man-made obstacles, is to oppose, in some sense, the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who seeks to bring all of us into a communion of saints that begins here on earth.

Let’s pray not only that the work of the Spirit be manifest, but that public vilification over not having all of one’s desires met may cease and that Archbishop Sheen’s beatification may go forward, so that we might all be able to celebrate soon Mass in honor of the first native-born U.S. bishop to be raised to the altars.

Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts,

and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.