The Sad and Scandalous Controversy over Sheen's Beatification

During my time in college and seminary, I developed a great devotion to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. I would regularly listen to recordings of his innumerable retreat conferences, Good Friday meditations and catechetical instructions on my "Walkman" while exercising or in my car on frequent long drives. I read many of his 69 books and purchased and repeatedly watched his "Life is Worth Living" videos.

I was transfixed by his brilliant insights into the Gospel as well as the passion with which his communicated them. He greatly influenced the way I grew to understand, pray and preach the Scriptures. His thoughts on the priesthood -- especially his sense that with Christ every priest must be a priest-victim; his notion that a priest needs to have one foot in the fonts of the faith and another in the daily newspaper; his insistence that priests make a daily Eucharistic holy hour; and his love of the Blessed Mother shown above all through celebrating a votive Mass each Saturday in her honor -- all became parts of my priestly DNA.

My devotion to him has just kept growing over the years. Whenever I'm in Manhattan, I visit St. Patrick's Cathedral in order, above all, to pray at or near his tomb. When I was preaching a parish mission in the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, a few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to his birthplace in El Paso, to the Cathedral of St. Mary where he used to serve Mass and where he was ordained a priest, and to the excellent museum set up to honor him within the Diocese's Spaulding Center. It was there that I picked up a holy card with a prayer for his canonization that I've been praying almost every day since.

That's why last Wednesday's decision of the Diocese of Peoria to suspend his cause for canonization when everything seemed ready for his beatification as early as next year flummoxed me. And the reason given and the way it was done saddened me immensely.

The Diocese of Peoria put out a press release trying to blame the Archdiocese of New York for the suspension of the process, saying that New York refused to agree to transfer Sheen's body to Peoria so that the body could be examined and relics taken as part of the normal procedure for beatification. But those protocols can be fulfilled anywhere, including where Sheen's tomb is in New York.

Peoria's release was an undignified attempt to foment public, political pressure on New York to force New York to acquiesce to Peoria's 12-year effort to get Sheen's body returned to his native place. Because New York has not agreed to transfer his remains, Peoria would unilaterally shut down the cause for canonization.

This shows, lamentably, that Peoria cares less about Sheen's beatification than it does in having his corpus be the centerpiece of a national shrine it's seeking to build.

Peoria halted the process for the same reasons once before in Nov. 2010, but three months later resumed it because its attempts to shame New York into capitulation failed.

What should Catholics think about this controversy? We can begin with some relevant facts.

First, because Sheen died in and was buried, at his express request, in New York, New York had the right to be in charge of his cause, but formally declined to lead it in 2002 for various reasons. Peoria agreed to take responsibility. Since then Peoria has expended much effort and money pushing forward the case and we wouldn't be where we are without Peoria's diligence.

Second, Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan both have great devotions to Sheen and obvious reasons for wanting Sheen's principal relics in their diocese as a center of veneration.

Third, the most appropriate place for Sheen to have been buried would have been in Rochester, NY, where he had been the Diocesan bishop, but in his will he wanted to be buried in New York City. That doesn't necessarily have to be the final and only word, but it is a highly significant.

Fourth, Bishop Jenky says that former Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, had in 2002 and 2004 agreed to translate Sheen's body to Peoria and that Peoria is just trying to get New York to fulfill its promise. We have not heard from Cardinal Egan as to whether this was a misperception, whether he said it and later changed his mind, or whether he recognized that it is not his sole decision, but one that also legally involves the members of Sheen's family. Regardless, we're dealing with what would have been a gift of New York -- a gift that Peoria would obviously be sad to lose -- but not a "right" of Peoria to Sheen's body.

Fifth, the process of beatification, technically, could continue without the examination of the body and acquisition of relics. An examination is needed simply to identify the remains -- something that's clear in Sheen's case -- and second-class relics (what someone used, like clothing) suffice for a beatification ceremony. First-class relics (parts of the body, hair, nails) are obviously preferred liturgically and devotionally, but the lack of them won't hold up a beatification.

New York has been giving Peoria a hard time about the relics, perhaps because Peoria has been giving New York difficulties about the translation of the body. Peoria says that New York's lawyer sent a letter in June saying it would never allow the examination of the body, the securing of relics or the transfer of the body. New York, however, in a press release last Friday went on record saying it would allow the examination of the body and the securing of relics provided that it would not involve the dismemberment of Sheen's body.

What's the path forward? I think it involves three elements.

First, Peoria should acknowledge that New York isn't going to permit the transfer of Sheen's body. Even if Peoria feels betrayed, it should respond to the disappointment as Christians and stop waging battle politically through the media. It has three times publicly detracted the Archdiocese of New York and by implication its leaders. A good end never justifies immoral means. Peoria's method is a total departure from the method of Sheen himself, who, even though everyone knew he had serious issues with Cardinal Spellman of New York, remained silent, refusing to use his media prominence to embarrass the Archbishop or undercut his authority. He knew that to do so would result in a loss for the Church and scandal for many. The Diocese promoting his cause would do well to follow his example.

Second, New York should be generous in cooperating with the relic acquisition. The New York press release implies it will allow Peoria to leave with a few strands of hair found in Sheen's sarcophagus, clearly something parsimonious after Peoria's 12 years of hard and heroic work pushing Sheen's cause. Even if New York is righteously indignant about Peoria's public methods and importunity, considering Peoria's understandable disappointment in not receiving the body, New York should at least allow it to return with major relics for its proposed national shrine. The history of Catholic veneration of saints would suggest several ways to do this that would be both respectful to the integrity of Sheen's remains as well as more amply conducive to fostering genuine devotion.

Third, all those who love Sheen and love the Church should pray through Sheen's intercession that the parties involved will come to a fair accord quickly, that Peoria will decide to resume promotion of the cause and suspend its pattern of unbecoming public detraction, and that all of us within a short period of time may be able to celebrate the Mass of the first native born American bishop to be raised to the altars.

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