Just two weeks after announcing that the long-awaited date of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's beatification…
A year later, still no answers on the delay of Fulton Sheen’s beatification
Great attention has been given to the need for transparency at all levels of the Church in recent years. Urgent calls for honesty and transparency from ecclesial leadership — and even the need for overarching reforms — understandably have increased in the wake of the seemingly never-ending scourge of clergy sexual abuse and related cover-ups. These calls also extend to the ever-widening focus on financial corruption and other forms of ecclesiastical wrongdoing that is coming to light.
Dec. 3 marks the one-year anniversary of an event that underscores the continued need for transparency in the Church — namely, the delay of the beatification of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Although the delay was referred to as a “postponement,” no further directive has been given about when the beatification might occur. Moreover, no sensible reason has yet been offered to explain the Holy See’s extraordinary halt to Sheen’s beatification just weeks before it was to be held in his former hometown of Peoria, Illinois. Rather than being a unifying event that celebrated a holy bishop, the beatification — and its postponement — turned into a concerning affair that, to this day, runs the risk of undermining the credibility of the Church’s canonization process and more.
The delay of Sheen’s beatification, accompanied with an all-too-familiar lack of clarity, is a cause of concern for the whole Church, not just those devoted to Sheen. While some might say the postponement offers proof that the beatification process works — given that concerns arose that might give reason to question Sheen’s beatification — the way in which it was handled raises grave concerns about the integrity and objectivity of the process.
It was evident in the days surrounding the surprise announcement that no one wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision. The Diocese of Peoria — which served as promoter of Sheen’s cause since it opened in 2004 — informed the public of the Holy See’s decision, but the Holy See never offered an explanation. And although a variety of details emerged, none provided a clear reason for the drastic move.
The Diocese of Rochester, New York — where Sheen briefly served as diocesan bishop following an exile from New York City for having famously clashed with that city’s Cardinal Francis Spellman (whose own legacy has not survived without lasting rumors of personal sexual misconduct) — claimed that personnel there had requested a further examination of Sheen’s record on handling claims of abuse against some Rochester priests. Many observed the delay may have been rooted in prudence and caution since New York state’s attorney general was still compiling a report on abuse of Catholic clergy in the state and was still accepting historical claims of clergy abuse. The deadline for such claims has been extended until early in 2021.
In response to the public outcry following the announcement of the postponement, an official from the Diocese of Peoria said Rochester’s concerns already had been attended to by two separate, concurrent investigations — conducted by both Peoria and the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints — which Peoria said cleared Sheen of any suspicion of missteps in handling abusive priests. Rochester, after admitting that they wanted a closer look to be given to their concerns, refused to take any questions or make further comment, save for a statement that confirmed: “There are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard.” Peoria officials assured that evidence shows Sheen “never put children in harm’s way.” But what exactly did happen remains unclear, especially amid conflicting reports. For example, after one blogger claimed that he had heard from insiders in Rome that the Sheen cause was dead, a priest with close ties to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints assured the faithful via a Facebook post that this was not the case. Nothing official, however, has been confirmed or denied.
Despite the postponement and subsequent conflicting information, facts remain that both warrant and necessitate Sheen’s beatification. It was proven that Sheen lived a life of heroic virtue, as attested to by Pope Benedict XVI’s designation of Sheen as “venerable” in 2010. And we know a miracle attributed to his intercession has been proven and was approved by Pope Francis in 2019. Without any evidence or explanation, the delay of the beatification calls into question those determinations and the Church’s canonization process as a whole.
The seriousness of the continued delay of Sheen’s beatification is compounded by further recent revelations of episcopal corruption and misconduct. This is especially true following the recent release of the Holy See’s long-awaited McCarrick report, which chronicled the high-level failures surrounding one of the most notorious ecclesiastical predators in modern Church history. It is worth noting that Sheen was mentioned in a somewhat bizarre footnote in that report, which stated that he had crossed paths with former cardinal and sexual predator Theodore E. McCarrick when he was an auxiliary bishop in New York in the late 1970s. Many who had far closer ties than Sheen’s tangential relationship with McCarrick were left out of the report, however.
So what happens next? In the past year, some notable changes have occurred concerning key players who would be involved in the continuation of the Sheen cause. First, the Diocese of Peoria received a new coadjutor bishop in the summer of 2020. Bishop Louis Tylka will become diocesan bishop when Bishop Daniel Jenky, CSC, retires. Bishop Jenky has been a longtime advocate for Sheen’s cause. Bishop Tylka came to Peoria from the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he served as a parish pastor and chairman of the presbyteral council. There is also a new prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, under the competency of which the future of the Sheen cause rests. Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, elevated to the College of Cardinals at the Nov. 28 consistory, recently replaced Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who resigned from his position — and the rights and duties of his membership in the college — in September following widespread reports of financial misconduct and corruption. Time will tell if any of these developments will make a difference regarding the advancement of Sheen’s cause.
In the meantime, while the status of Sheen’s cause remains unclear, the unfortunate absence of transparency from Church leadership makes it clear the laity must continue to seek answers regarding its postponement, for the good of the Church and its credibility. This means the faithful need to do what Sheen himself said years ago: “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops, like bishops, and your religious act like religious.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s SimplyCatholic.com. He writes from Indiana.
|TIMELINE OF SHEEN’S CANONIZATION CAUSE|
May 25, 2011: Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria presents Pope Benedict XVI with the positio — or document — that outlines the case for Sheen’s canonization.
June 28, 2012: Pope Benedict declares Sheen “venerable,” recognizing that he lived a life of heroic virtue.
Sept. 3, 2014: Bishop Jenky announces that Sheen’s canonization cause was being suspended because of a dispute between the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York over where Sheen’s remains should be located.
June 7, 2019: The New York Court of Appeals rules against the Archdiocese of New York, clearing the way for Sheen’s remains to return to Peoria and for his canonization cause to resume.
July 6, 2019: The diocese of Peoria announces that Pope Francis has signed a decree recognizing a miracle attributed to Sheen’s intercession — the healing of an infant whose heart didn’t beat for 61 minutes after he was born — clearing the way for his beatification.
Nov. 18, 2019: The Diocese of Peoria announces that Sheen will be beatified at the city’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
Dec. 3, 2019: Bishop Jenky of Peoria announces that the beatification of Fulton Sheen has been postponed.