Reflecting on the many unusual events of 2016, the case surrounding the corpse of Venerable Archbishop Fulton John Sheen may stand out as one of most bizarre of all. Although the good man died 37 years ago, his body hit the news again because his final resting place couldn’t be decided upon outside of court. Though he was born in the Diocese of Peoria, Sheen’s public life ended in the Archdiocese of New York, and these two episcopal districts have been duking it out, over who should have his body, in grand style for the last few years.
It sounds a bit macabre—and to be sure, battling over a body has a ghastly element. Nonetheless, there is something marvelous to the whole melodrama too, and something providentially timely. We live in an age in which “transgenders” and their advocates demand support for their neo-Gnostic hatred of the body and their denial of the intrinsic goodness of material reality. This is an age in which vast numbers experience more virtual reality than real, physical presence. Although it was not the intention of the prelates involved in the dispute over Sheen’s body to do so, they have inadvertently highlighted some of the most beautiful and comforting elements of the Faith. A dispute over the body of a saint reminds us of the Incarnational world in which we live, and draws attention to deep elements of the Catholic faith.
To quickly recap the dispute between Peoria and New York: the Diocese of Peoria initiated the cause for Fulton Sheen’s sainthood in 2002, at which point the late Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York confirmed that Peoria was “the ideal diocese” to undertake the process. The understanding was that when the time came for a beatification ceremony, New York would hand over the body of the holy man to the diocese from whence he sprang, and which had done the grunt work for promoting his cause. When 2014 came along, with beatification around the corner, Peoria officially requested the body so that it could be examined and be present for the beatification ceremony in Peoria’s cathedral. At this point, however, Cardinal Dolan of New York, along with the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, hesitated over the body’s departure. Before he died, Archbishop Sheen expressed his desire to be buried in New York, and even purchased a burial plot there. Therefore, the archdiocese argued that Fulton Sheen’s body should remain, and be present for beatification, in St. Patrick’s.
At this point, Bishop Jenky of Peoria suspended the cause for beatification, stalemating the entire process. New York cannot host the beatification without cooperation from the initiators, and Peoria cannot beatify the man without New York sending his remains. The case went to New York’s Supreme Court in the summer of 2016, with Joan Sheen Cunningham, Sheen’s great-niece, fighting for Peoria’s right to the body. Ms. Cunningham won the law suit in November of 2016, but the Archdiocese of New York has appealed that court’s decision and the case continues.
Strong arguments have been made that the whole debacle brings shame and embarrassment upon the Catholic Church in America. Author Thomas J. Craughwell wrote these scathing remarks for The American Spectator: “The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria are wrangling like spoiled children over who gets a prized toy. In this case, however, the ‘toy’ in question is the body of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.” Craughwell adds, “That custody of the body of a potential saint is being fought over in a courtroom can only be described as cringe-worthy. To be candid, I blame New York. After letting Peoria do all the heavy lifting for twelve years, at the last minute they say, ‘Whoops! We’ve changed our minds.’ It is an embarrassment for American Catholics. It disgraces the memory of Archbishop Sheen. And it makes the Trustees of St. Patrick’s look like a passel of spoiled brats.”
Perhaps the issue could have been handled in some better way. However, though there may be some truth in Mr. Craughwell’s analysis, on several points I beg to differ.
For one thing, the dioceses are not arguing over a toy, but something of immeasurable value—the body and future shrine of a saint. That’s actually something worth fighting over, although at first glance the brawl seems petty and even vulgar. The Catholic Church has always held relics to be precious and worthy of great reverence. When the Council of Trent issued its “Decree on Relics and Sacred Images” in 1563, it confirmed the importance of venerating saints’ bodies: “The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and which are destined to be raised and gloried by him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them many benefits are granted to men by God.”
Veneration for the saints, their bodies, and places their lives touched has always been common and beloved practice among followers of Christ. When St. Thérèse of Lisieux was 14, on pilgrimage to Rome and other holy cities with her father and sister Celine, one of the highlights of their journey was visiting the relics of saints, as well as places made holy by the saints. Thérèse writes in her Story of a Soul: “After Venice, we went on to Padua where we venerated the tongue of St. Anthony, and then on to Bologna where we saw St. Catherine, who retains the imprint of the kiss of the Infant Jesus.” Thérèse and her sister both dared to defy rules limiting the contact of visitors with holy places; among their bold exploits, Thérèse writes, was the time she and her sister “slipped down together to the bottom of the ancient tomb of St. Cecilia and took some earth which was sanctified by her presence. Before my trip to Rome I didn’t have any special devotion to this saint, but when I visited her house transformed into a church, the site of her martyrdom…I felt more than devotion for her; it was the real tenderness of a friend.”
On a personal note, I had a profoundly moving experience visiting Siena, the city hallowed by that feisty counselor to the Avignon popes, St. Catherine of Siena, whose earthly remains were rather gruesomely divvied up. It was a great privilege to visit her tiny room, as well as the Basilica of St. Dominic, where St. Catherine experienced some of her beautiful mystical encounters with Jesus. The basilica also houses the severed head of the saint, which was taken from Rome by her confessor Blessed Raymond of Capua, while her body remained in the heart of the Church.
As the story of St. Catherine illustrates, the scuffle over Fulton Sheen’s body hardly blazes the trail, but rather, has many predecessors. At least no one has stolen his head—and yet, were they to do so, they could point to a man now a blessed as exemplar! To enshrine a saint hallows one’s city, providing easy opportunity for veneration by local devotees, including, in the case of Sheen, those who promoted his cause from the beginning. Saints also draw pilgrims, which, on a spiritual level, increases devotion and which, on a material level, increases commerce.
As some have commented, the kerfuffle bears almost medieval traits. There is a raw, physical element to it. Considering the incarnational world in which we live, the raw, physical elements of the Faith may actually be a good thing to bring to the public sphere of debate. Man was created in God’s image and likeness, with an immaterial soul and a material body that, united, form the person. But since God is Being itself, unlimited by matter, the resemblance man bears to him resides in the immaterial gifts which inform man’s body: the intellect and will. Image and likeness has nothing to do with physical appearance.
That is, until Jesus. Jesus, the second Person of the most holy Trinity, entered human history physically, taking to himself a human nature, and becoming true man while remaining true God. In the words of St. Athanasius:
Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father…. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.
All of a sudden, the human body itself bears a likeness to God! By his death and resurrection, Jesus not only won salvation, but elevated the dignity of the human body. Now, the human body can be the earthly temple of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself can truly enter through Holy Communion. St. Paul champions this point when he exhorts the faithful: “Do you not understand that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit has his dwelling in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).
Further, those who have died in the friendship of Christ may look to Jesus’ resurrection, and expect the final resurrection, when their bodies will join their souls for eternity in heaven. St. Paul also confirms this hope in bodily resurrection: “In our baptism, we have been buried with him, died like him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father’s power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence” (Rom 6:4). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection” (par 997). The human body retains dignity even after death, because, although its union with the soul has been severed, the essential bond between body and soul remains. However, the imperfection both soul and body bear due to separation will end at the final resurrection when the bodies of the saints follow the example of that Body par excellence and rise from death to live forever.
Therefore, by dutiful care for the bodies of the saints, the Church draws attention to Christ, for whose sake we honor saints in the first place. In his encyclical Cum Conventus Esset Pope John XV clarifies: “…we so venerate and honor the relics of the martyrs and confessors in order that we may venerate him whose martyrs and confessors they are: we honor the servants so that honor may redound to the Lord, who said; ‘Whoever receives you, receives me’ [Mt 10:40].” One does not venerate the saint simply on the saint’s account, but because their lives glorified the Lord, and because they will rise again on the last day.
One could argue that the lack of charity shown between dioceses undermines any devotion possessed by either to the saint in question. However, squabbling over the body of a saint falls in the category of things at least worthy of fights, in which multiple opinions could be correct. This kind of a row seems significantly more desirable than one on whether divorced and civilly remarried can receive the Eucharist, whether women’s rights extend to abortion, or whether couples practicing contraception may have good excuses. Certain things should be beyond discussion, considering the Church has already answered those questions extensively and lovingly. But where Fulton Sheen’s body should end up? Now there’s a great issue. Get people talking about saints, relics, Jesus, the Incarnation, the final resurrection, as well as the inherent dignity and goodness of the human body. Maybe people are even listening to Fulton Sheen’s old talks and watching his old shows because Bishop Jenky and Cardinal Dolan brought him to the headlines again. Personal conduct could have been better, but Providence brought out of the mess discussion material perfectly suited to answer current confusion.