by Jay Chin
On September 3, the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois announced that “the Cause for Sheen’s beatification and canonization has for the foreseeable future been suspended.” Over the course of twelve years, the Diocese has invested hundreds of hours in investigations amounting to fifteen thousand pages of testimony about Venerable Fulton Sheen’s saintly character. This led Pope Benedict XVI to proclaim him “Venerable” in 2012.
Last year, seven doctors proclaimed that the resuscitation of Bonnie Engstrom’s stillborn child has no medical explanation. The mother and father say they asked for Ven. Sheen’s intercession and that the prayer was answered. Many foresaw that he would be proclaimed “Blessed” as soon as early 2015 by Pope Francis. Now, recent disputes between Ven. Sheen’s home diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York concerning his body have made it impossible to move forward with the canonization process.
According to Msgr. Stanley Deptula, vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, it has been Bishop Daniel R. Jenky’s intention since the beginning of the canonization process to have Ven. Sheen’s remains permanently transferred to Peoria. Bishop Jenky claimed that, in 2004, Cardinal Edward Egan assured him the remains would be moved from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, where they currently lie, to a shrine in St. Mary’s Cathedral dedicated to him, which has already been built. Bishop Jenky hoped that this transfer would take place when the time came for the certification of the authenticity of Sheen’s remains, as required by Sanctorum Mater article 2 §1, and collection of first-class relics for the Beatification Mass. However, Ven. Sheen’s family has expressed that he never wanted to be buried anywhere but in New York, where he served as auxiliary bishop for fifteen years. Thus, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, will not allow that the remains be transferred permanently nor that they be exhumed at all unless the Congregation for the Causes of Saints itself orders it. Even then, he required that it be “approved by the family, that it be done modestly and reverently, and that the exhumation [meet] the requirements of New York State law.”
Joan Sheen Cunningham, Ven. Sheen’s oldest living relative, spoke with Cardinal Dolan and gave her family’s approval for a temporary transfer and collection of first-class relics to be enshrined in Peoria’s cathedral. However, Cardinal Dolan’s decision stood strong and the Diocese of Peoria had no choice but to shelve the cause for canonization indefinitely.
Cardinal Dolan’s concerns remain unclear. New York State law does not forbid the body from leaving the state, neither does the collection of first-class relics—parts of the deceased’s body which can be anything from a piece of skin or hair—does not imply disrespect or irreverence. On the other hand, the Diocese of Peoria’s chancellor, Patricia Gibson, has recently said that other members of Sheen’s family support the permanent transfer, meaning that they may continue advocating for a permanent transfer. Transferring the body at all, therefore, may lead to a more dire conflict between Peoria and New York. On September 5, the Archdiocese of New York stated that they would welcome the opportunity to take up the cause, even after refusing to do so in 2002 and in 2010 and currently working on three causes of their own. The Diocese of Peoria does not seem interested in taking up this invitation. In response to this impasse, various Catholic bloggers, including Bonnie Engstrom, have asked readers to write to the Congregation explaining the situation and asking them to give the order so that the cause of the beloved televangelist and catechist may be advanced.