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'Honoring the Desire of Archbishop Sheen'

'Honoring the Desire of Archbishop Sheen'


By    |   Friday, 09 December 2016 04:02 PM

Today is the 37th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It's a day on which all those Catholics who love the Archbishop, who look to him for inspiration, and who pray to God through his intercession hope one day to celebrate his feast.

For that to occur, however, he first has to be beatified, and unfortunately his beatification has been stalled since September 2014 because of a scandalous dispute over his body and the unfortunate, unilateral decision by the Diocese of Peoria to suspend his cause of canonization until, according to its wish, the mortal remains of the Archbishop are moved from underneath the high altar in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria.

The Diocese of Peoria made the decision to suspend Archbishop Sheen's cause after it was unable to produce evidence that Cardinal Edward Egan, former Archbishop of New York, had verbally agreed to transfer Sheen's remains to the Midwest as Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, CSC, has maintained.

So the Diocese of Peoria determined to obtain the transfer of the body by another means, persuading the Archbishop's eldest surviving relative, his niece, Mrs. John Cunningham, who had always supported the Archbishop's remaining at St. Patrick's, to change her mind and petition the Supreme Court of the State of New York to order a transfer. Justice Arlene P. Bluth on November 16 decided in Mrs. Cunningham's favor, but subsequently stayed her decision pending an appeal by the Board of Trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

We all wait as yet another anniversary of Archbishop Sheen passes without his beatification.

I was not present when representatives of the Diocese of Peoria persuaded Mrs. Cunningham to change her mind and file the motion, but based on the misinformation that has pervaded the Diocese's press releases, I can venture a guess.

Peoria has often publicly portrayed that Archbishop Sheen's beatification process cannot go on unless Sheen's relics are moved from New York to Peoria. That is absolutely untrue. Relics are indeed required for a beatification ceremony because during the liturgical rite, the mortal remains of the new beatus are solemnly brought forward to be venerated. But the relics required are not what the Church calls "first-class" relics like the person's hair, blood, or other parts of his body; "second-class" relics, like clothing or things the person used, suffice. And the Diocese of Peoria already abounds in second-class relics of Archbishop Sheen, many of them on display in their beautiful museum dedicated to his honor.

To me it's highly plausible that Peoria conveyed to Mrs. Cunningham the same misinformation, that unless the Archbishop's body be moved, there could be no beatification. At 88 years old, and desirous of seeing her uncle raised to the altars, it's understandable why Mrs. Cunningham, based on that false understanding, might have changed her mind. At 84 years old myself, the time I have to witness my friend, mentor and spiritual father beatified is likewise getting more pressing. But the reason the cause has been suspended is not because of the failure to transfer the remains; it's because of Peoria's decision to hold the process hostage until it obtains, by whatever means necessary, including those that St. Paul urged the first Christians never to use (cf. 1 Cor 6:1-3), the transfer of the late Archbishop's body.

I have a very personal interest in the case. I am the last surviving member of the "household" of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Since bishops do not have children of their own, they generally form a spiritual family around them — normally called their "household" — which involves their priest secretaries, the religious sisters perhaps who staff their residence, and other close collaborators, who most often are closer to them than their siblings, nieces and nephews, since the members of their household are those who have lived with them and have become like their spiritual sons and daughters.

I first got to know Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1959 and remained close to him for the remaining 20 years of his life. From 1962 through 1967, I served as his assistant at the National Office of the Propagation of the Faith in New York and also served as his peritus or theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council. During this time, we lived together at his residence on East 38th Street in Manhattan. When he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester in 1966, I accompanied him there to help him in his transition, before I was assigned in 1967 to serve at the Apostolic Delegation in Washington DC and then, for the next 26 years, in the Vatican.

Archbishop Sheen and I remained close friends and regularly corresponded until the end of his earthly life. In 2014, based on our correspondence — he sent me over 100 handwritten letters — and our long friendship, I published a book entitled "Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend."

With regard to the disagreement about where his mortal remains should rest, he openly expressed to me several times in person that he wanted to be buried in New York. That was a conscious choice. As the retired bishop of Rochester, it would have been expected for him to be buried with the other deceased bishops of that Diocese. As a native of El Paso, Illinois, he could have chosen to be buried with his parents in the family plot. Instead, and notably, he wanted to be buried in the Big Apple. He purchased a burial plot in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, a burial ground operated by the Trustees of St. Patrick's and the official cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York.

During conversations at his apartment in New York after he retired from Rochester, he told me on several occasions with joy that Cardinal Terence Cooke had offered him to be buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral of New York, a privilege accorded normally only to deceased Archbishops of New York by custom and a few other notable people by exception.

In her Nov. 16 decision, Justice Bluth openly questioned why, in the final copy of his will, executed only five days before the good Lord called him home, Archbishop Sheen directed that he be buried in Calvary Cemetery rather than St. Patrick's crypt.

Justice Bluth stated, in response to an affidavit I wrote to the Court describing what the Archbishop told me, "Critically, Msgr. Franco does not state that Archbishop Sheen wanted to be buried at St. Patrick's; Msgr. Franco only claims that Archbishop Sheen told him that Cardinal Cooke had made the offer. If Archbishop Sheen knew he had an offer to be buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, then why did he state in his will, dated only five days before his death, that he wanted to be buried in Calvary? He was clearly capable of identifying that he wanted to be buried in St. Patrick's if that option was available."

These are legitimate questions that merit an answer.

When Archbishop Sheen mentioned to me that Cardinal Cooke had offered to bury him in the Cathedral Crypt, he did so with hope and happiness. I could certainly have stated that point more explicitly in my affidavit, but Her Honor could have also safely inferred that the Archbishop would not have mentioned it to me on several occasions if he had been afraid or upset about the possibility. For the Archbishop to have declared in his will that he wished to be buried in St. Patrick's would have been, in ecclesiastical circles, obscenely presumptuous — since it's only by exception that non-Archbishops of New York are buried there — and therefore it's something that a dignified man like him would never have done. For the same reason, he didn't suggest it as a hypothetical, lest their be even the slightest semblance of posthumous pressure on Cardinal Cooke or anyone else.

But knowing Cardinal Cooke, he fully trusted that His Eminence would fulfill the pledge he had made. And Cardinal Cooke did, which is indeed evidence that there had been previous conversations between the two Churchmen as Archbishop Sheen repeatedly mentioned to me.

I attended his funeral and interment in the crypt at St. Patrick's Cathedral and am of the opinion, based on my many conversations with him and our friendship, that a permanent transfer of his remains to Peoria would violate his intention to remain in New York even after his death. He loved New York. He loved St. Patrick's Cathedral. He loved preaching from that pulpit. He loved that every day thousands of people enter St. Patrick's to pray, to attend Mass, to adore the Blessed Sacrament, to go to Confession, and be strengthened for their journey of faith.

St. Patrick's puts into stone his 'solicitude for all the Churches,' what the Second Vatican Council I attended with him said every bishop must have, and he loved that Catholics and non-Catholics from all the Missionary countries he helped during his service as National Director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith come to visit St. Patrick's.

Every fair observer knows that far more people, from throughout the United States and across the world, will be able to venerate his remains in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York than in St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria. More would be able to pray before his body in an average week in New York than in several months in central Illinois, and all those who care about Archbishop Sheen's legacy and about promoting veneration of him can see the advantages of his body remaining in New York, consistent with his own expressed desire.

So it's time for those who are praying for Archbishop Sheen's beatification to ask the Diocese of Peoria to stop pretending that the Archbishop's beatification cannot move forward unless his body be transferred to Illinois and to reverse its unilateral decision to suspend his cause until it gets its way about Sheen's body by whatever means. Mrs. Cunningham as well as so many other devotees of Sheen deserve the truth about the situation and desire to see the beatification take place as soon as possible, which will almost certainly take place in Peoria, a fitting tribute for all the Diocese's efforts in funding and leading the postulation of his cause. It's also time for the Diocese of Peoria to stop the scandal of believers' suing other believers in civil courts and of recapitulating some of the worst Medieval fights over saints' bodies.

Archbishop Sheen desired to be buried at St. Patrick's. He got his wish. Let's venerate him first and foremost by honoring that choice.

Monsignor Hilary Franco was assistant to Archbishop Sheen at the National Office of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith and expert advisor to him at the Second Vatican Council. He served for 24 years at the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy and 19 years as Pastor in the Archdiocese of New York. He is the author of "Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend."



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Today is the 37th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It’s a day on which all those Catholics who love the Archbishop, who look to him for inspiration, and who pray to God through his intercession hope one day to celebrate his feast.
archbishop, fulton sheen, anniversary, death, catholic
Friday, 09 December 2016 04:02 PM
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