With documented miracles and an Emmy award to his name, the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is a prime candidate for sainthood. However, it has emerged that no further steps towards his beatification may be taken until a dispute over his remains is ended.
Archbishop Sheen (1895 – 1979), the popular radio and TV evangelist behind “Life is Worth Living,” has been on the path to sainthood since 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI declared him “venerable.”
As recently as March, medical experts confirmed to the Vatican that there is no natural explanation for the survival of a baby whose heart didn’t beat for the first hour of his life. The mother of the child, now a healthy three year old, attributed the miracle to Archbishop Sheen, saying, “I just kept repeating his name over and over in my head: Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen.”
All the while, the Diocese of Peoria, IL where Sheen was born, and the Archdiocese of New York, where he died and lies in rest, have been battling over his remains.
For the last 35 years, Archbishop Sheen’s remains have been contained in a crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Because he served for a number of years as the Bishop of Rochester, NY and spent his later days in New York City, with plans to be buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, it is the belief of his family – and of Cardinal Dolan, who counts Sheen as one of his personal heroes – that the Archbishop would have wanted his remains to stay in New York.
Sheen, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Illinois and spent his formative years there, in Peoria. He was ordained there in 1919, and, as a young priest, he returned to the town for a few months in 1926 to oversee St. Patrick’s Parish.
Because of this link, the Diocese of Peoria, led by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, has been eager to honor Sheen. Since 2002, Bishop Jenky has led the campaign to see Archbishop Sheen canonized. The diocese has constructed a museum in his memory; Bishop Jenky leads the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation, and, the New York Times reports, blueprints have already been drawn up for a shrine in the main cathedral to house his tomb.
Before Bishop Jenky and Peoria took up the campaign, Cardinal Egan, then Archbishop of New York, had declined to sponsor the bid for Sheen’s sainthood. Bishiop Jenky and the Peoria Diocese maintain that Egan had promised on multiple occasions that the Archbishop’s remains would eventually be returned to Peoria.
However, when Cardinal Dolan became the leader of the New York diocese in 2009, he cited concerns over what Archbishop Sheen would have wanted and a lack of evidence that Cardinal Egan has made such a promise to Peoria.
Within the Catholic Church, it is not unusual for the diocese where a saint was born to request the return of their remains. Nor, however, is it unheard of for a saint's remains to be divided between dioceses – whether substantially or in relics – but Cardinal Dolan has declined to consider such a compromise.
The dispute has simmered ever since and came to a head this summer after a standoff between New York and Peoria over whether his remains would be exhumed and examined. According to canon law, prior to beatification, the remains of a potential saint must be exhumed and authenticated. In this process, relics such as bone fragments or hairs are often taken for future veneration.
Cardinal Dolan wrote a letter to Peoria stating that the New York archdiocese would not allow Sheen’s remains to be transported for exhumation. In response, Bishop Jenky has declared that Peoria’s campaign to canonize Archbishop Sheen has been “suspended.”