While Embarrassing, Sheen Beatification Delay Could Turn Out Well

COMMENTARY: The latest development may finally give the Sheen beatification the treatment it deserves.

Fulton J. Sheen in 1905
Fulton J. Sheen in 1905 (photo: Library of Congress)

That postponement of the beatification of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen is just the latest baffling development in the cause that has brought no small measure of embarrassment to what should have been an occasion of edification.

But the latest fiasco may finally get the Sheen beatification the treatment it deserves, namely a proper celebration for the universal Church, not just a parochial event for the promoters of the cause.

The Sheen saga has had many twists and turns.

The Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, and Bishop Daniel Jenky have been the promoters of Archbishop Sheen’s cause for sainthood. They launched the process in 2002, did the work and raised the money. They got the cause through to the point where beatification was imminent.

Then Bishop Jenky announced that unless the body of Archbishop Sheen was transferred to Peoria from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, he would not permit the cause to go forward. The “no body, no beatification” policy led to several years of litigation with the Archdiocese of New York. Last June, the body was transferred to Peoria.

With the body in Peoria, Bishop Jenky immediately reactivated the cause and persuaded the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome to publish the decree for the miracle within a week.

Pilgrims in Peoria when the body arrived in late June heard excited talk that the diocese planned the beatification for that September, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Venerable Sheen’s priestly ordination, which took place in the Peoria cathedral.

It seemed rushed. A beatification of the significance of Archbishop Sheen would normally be planned nine months or a year in advance, in order to give the entire country and the wider Church time to organize pilgrimages, draft catechetical resources and prepare all the material and spiritual tasks necessary to make it a truly evangelical event.

In July, Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, New York, where Venerable Sheen served as bishop from 1966 to 1969, expressed his view to the Vatican that rushing ahead would be imprudent. Why? Since the cause of Archbishop Sheen had been introduced, different standards have applied to how bishops handled cases of priestly sexual abuse.

After the Pennsylvania grand jury report in 2018, deceased bishops had their names removed from schools for not handling cases before 2002 — the year of the Dallas Charter — as they pledged to do so afterward. Could Archbishop Sheen be beatified if other bishops could not even have schools named after them?

Bishop Matano had two concerns. First was the actual record, which needed to be double- and triple-checked with the lenses of the now-prevailing standards. Second was the inquiry launched by the New York attorney general into all the Catholic dioceses in New York state. The Pennsylvania grand jury report was grossly — and sometimes deliberately — misleading. What if Venerable Sheen’s record was clear, but the New York attorney general slandered his reputation? How would that mar the purpose of the beatification?

Further complicating matters, all New York dioceses are facing an avalanche of new litigation as civil suits dating back decades have now been allowed, the statute of limitations being suspended. The Diocese of Rochester will file for bankruptcy, as a result. The volume of litigation will involve a lot of material coming to light, needing to be put into proper context.

In the late summer and fall, Archbishop Sheen’s record on abuse cases was re-examined. The case in question concerned Gerard Guli, an abuser priest who was given an assignment despite having been credibly accused of sexual abuse of adults, not minors. He did get another assignment in Rochester, but, it turns out, not from then-Bishop Sheen, but his successor, Bishop Joseph Hogan.

That having been established to the satisfaction of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Bishop Jenky then requested a beatification date within the calendar year. He prevailed and, on Nov. 18, announced that Venerable Sheen would be beatified 33 days later.

There was shock across the body of U.S. bishops, who, despite having all been assembled just days earlier in Baltimore for their annual fall assembly, had not been consulted. Bishop Jenky had treated Archbishop Sheen’s beatification as a local parochial event rather than something belonging to the entire Church.

At this point, Bishop Matano renewed his objections to the apostolic nuncio: Archbishop Sheen’s record may be clear according to the Church process, but what about the potential for a blindsiding hit from the New York attorney general?

After Pennsylvania, it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that accusations — false or taken out of context — would have to be answered. And a beatification is not the time to answer them.

Rome consulted with senior metropolitan bishops concerned about Venerable Sheen’s case and the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Jenky’s go-it-alone strategy had earned him no support, and the advice Rome got was to delay the beatification until after the New York report was issued and, if necessary, properly responded to. Then a beatification could proceed as it should, unmarred by innuendo or suspicion.

Had Bishop Jenky sought the counsel and collaboration of his brother bishops on the timing of the beatification, all those considerations would have been heard before a date was announced. There would not have been any embarrassing postponement.

But the history of the cause is not one of counsel and collaboration. The “no body, no beatification” policy was not widely supported among the U.S. bishops, nor was Bishop Jenky’s decision to sue another diocese in the civil courts to obtain the body.

What does all this mean for Venerable Sheen’s beatification? The bad news is that the whole matter has been temporarily stained by postponement and the lack of transparency. The good news is that the magnitude of the fiasco means that Rome will no longer be taking advice from Peoria alone on how to proceed. The next time a beatification date is announced, the other U.S. bishops won’t hear it for the first time in a diocesan press release.

Peoria deserves the credit for moving Archbishop Sheen’s cause forward. But that doesn’t make it a Peoria project alone. Now the cause will take on a properly national dimension for Americans and a universal dimension for the Church.

Meanwhile, it should be kept in mind that causes for saints are often delayed for reasons other than the holiness of the candidates.

The beatification of Blessed Pius IX, who died in 1878, took place in the year 2000, enough time having passed from the controversies of his reign to have cooled. St. Paul VI took the view that no martyrs of the Spanish Civil War should be beatified while Francisco Franco was still ruling Spain, to avoid politicizing the beatifications.

The role of diocesan bishops in handling abuse cases was not considered an issue in 1969, when Archbishop Sheen retired. Fifty years later, it is.

That a delay to sort all that out for an American diocesan bishop is shocking in the manner that it took place, after the beatification date had been set. But in the light of history, it is quite understandable.

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