The Archdiocese of New York has repeated its hope that the Diocese of Peoria will reopen the sainthood cause of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a former auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, which has been indefinitely suspended by the Diocese of Peoria for nearly two years.
This follows the Sheen family’s petition last week to the Supreme Court of the State of New York to allow the transfer of the sainthood candidate’s remains to Peoria, Ill.
Joan Sheen Cunningham, 88, Archbishop Sheen’s niece and his oldest living relative, filed a petition June 13 asking that the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York—where Archbishop Sheen has been entombed in a crypt following his death on Dec. 9, 1979, according to the Archbishop’s stipulation in his will that he be buried in the archdiocese—and the Archdiocese of New York allow his remains to be disinterred and transferred to Peoria for interment in a crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
The Archdiocese, in a statement released June 14, said officials will obviously need time to review the petition announced by the Illinois diocese, but added that “it is definitely good news that the Diocese of Peoria seems ready to reopen the cause so that the much desired process towards beatification and canonization can resume. They have worked so hard, and deserve the thanks of us all!”
Cardinal Dolan, speaking to CNY on June 17, said a decision on whether to release the body from its resting place was not his to make, but was a matter of New York state law.
“I don’t know what the court will do,” the cardinal said. “It’s not my decision…I can’t just say to Peoria, ‘Take (the body).’ I have to heed Archbishop Sheen’s instruction in his will that he be buried in New York, New York State law, the counsel of the Cathedral trustees, and, up until last week, the desire of the family.”
When a request to move the body is made contrary to the will of the deceased, as is the case with Archbishop Sheen, a court proceeding is required before earthly remains can be relocated, even on a temporary basis, the cardinal said.
Cardinal Dolan called Mrs. Cunningham “one of the more gracious women I’ve ever met.”
“She does remind me of her uncle. She has his wit and wisdom,” he said.
Saying Mrs. Cunningham is “passionate” about Archbishop Sheen’s beatification and canonization, the cardinal said he considers himself “an ally” of hers and of Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria in seeking to get “this done as expeditiously as possible.”
The recent statement by the Archdiocese of New York also said that the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes “tells us that what is needed most now is the letter from the bishop of Peoria reopening the cause he closed two years ago.” At that time, the Diocese of Peoria said it could not proceed with the cause without having possession of the archbishop’s remains.
Cardinal Dolan, in the CNY interview, said that the Congregation for Saints’ Causes has made clear that the location of the body is out of its jurisdiction, and that the transfer of the body is not essential to the progress of the cause. The cardinal noted that “the cause of beatification is concerned about where the immortal soul is, not the body.”
Archbishop Sheen, a native of El Paso, Ill., who was ordained for the Peoria Diocese, became a radio and television pioneer, winning the 1951 Emmy for outstanding television personality for his show “Life Is Worth Living.” The renowned charismatic preacher also hosted a nighttime radio show, “The Catholic Hour,” for 20 years.
For 16 years in the 1950s and 1960s, as auxiliary bishop of New York, he was an advocate for the Church’s missionary work through his leadership of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States, where he served as the national director in Manhattan. He was bishop of the Diocese of Rochester from 1966 to 1969.
Archbishop Sheen is the author of dozens of books, including his autobiography: “Treasure in Clay.”
The New York Archdiocese, in its recent statement, said it had asked the Peoria Diocese to “officially reopen the cause, with the understanding that the archbishop’s earthly remains would then be sent to Peoria for a beatification ceremony as soon as one was announced, and then returned after an appropriate time” to the crypt beneath the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The statement also noted that several weeks ago—“with the advice and consent” of Ms. Cunningham—the archdiocese put forward a proposal to balance Archbishop Sheen’s “personal wish” to be “permanently buried” at its cathedral “with the understandable desire of the Diocese of Peoria to have his earthly remains present in their diocese for the celebration of his long hoped-for beatification.”
With the Peoria Diocese’s announcement of the petition, the New York Archdiocese said it was pleased to learn “there appears to be progress” on “a cause for which we have all worked hard.”
In 2000, the Archbishop Sheen Foundation was officially organized, and two years later, Bishop Jenky petitioned the Vatican to open the canonization process.
In 2011, the Diocese of Peoria submitted the case of a child, born without heartbeat or respiration, who was revived through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Archbishop Sheen “venerable,” meaning he lived a life of heroic virtues. The next steps would be beatification and canonization.
In general two miracles are needed for sainthood—one for beatification and the second for canonization.
The basis for a possible miracle attributable to Archbishop Sheen came after Bonnie Engstrom delivered a stillborn baby in 2010. Her son James had no recorded heartbeat for 61 minutes after delivery.
As doctors were about to pronounce the child dead, James’ heart started beating. He has defied doctors’ predictions that he would not survive, or that he would have severe physical and developmental limitations.
In March 2014, a seven-member team of medical experts convoked by the Vatican reported there is no natural explanation for the boy’s survival.
If the case of the child is deemed by the Vatican to be a miracle that occurred through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen, officials in the Peoria Diocese said his beatification would take place in Peoria.
Catholic New York and Catholic News Service contributed to this story.