On Bodies, Relics, and Canonization

Or: “Why We Need to Stop Fighting over Venerable Sheen’s Body”

What would Venerable Sheen say about the public debate over the progression of his Cause for Canonization, and who gets his body?

He would probably be unhappy with the amount of controversy, and the fact that the debate is publicized, especially since he tried very hard to keep his external (those coming from other people) sufferings private. He explains in his posthumously published autobiography, Treasure in Clay:

Impure discipline is that which comes from others, deserved or undeserved, deliberate or accidental. …I have resolved in this book not to touch on any suffering that came to me from others. … The impure sufferings would have had a time span of about ten years.

Thomas Reeves, in America’s Bishop, narrates the relationship between Life of Christ and Sheen’s feud with Spellman:

When Life of Christ appeared, Sheen told a couple of priests, during a breakfast after Mass, about his warfare with Spellman. Fr. Robert Paul Mohan, a former Sheen student at Catholic University, said later that Sheen was not whining, and he even salted the account with some humor, yet it was obvious that the difficulties between the bishop and the cardinal were severe. A few years later, Sheen told Michael C. Hogan, a priest who served as his secretary, that Cardinal Spellman had harassed him about money at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The incident, he said, was “one of his crucifixions.” Sheen told Hogan that Life of Christ was written because he wanted to go through the Lord’s life, pondering the suffering and crucifixion to help his own situation.

A preface to a 1977 reissue of the book makes it explicit that Life of Christ stemmed directly from Fulton’s pain at the hands of Cardinal Spellman. Without naming the cardinal or the dates, Sheen wrote of suffering for about ten years of his life (from 1957 to Spellman’s death in 1967), and of his need to find solace in the Cross of Christ. His “great trial” had driven him deeper into the Scripture[s] and the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. He wrote, “Unless there is a Good Friday in our lives there will never be an Easter Sunday. . . . Christianity begins not with sunshine but with defeat. Sunshine religions that begin with psychic elation, end often in disillusionment and despair. So essential is dying to self the prelude to the true life of self.” In Christ’s sufferings, Fulton was able to bear his own. “During those days when my life was backed up against the cross, I began to know and to love it more.”

So, what can we learn from Sheen’s refusal to publicize his scandal with Cardinal Spellman, and how does it relate to the current struggle between the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York?

1) The two ways we could influence the success of the cause are a) prayer, prayer, prayer*, and b) .  Bonnie Engstrom, the mother of James Fulton, whose return to life after he was stillborn has been approved by both medical experts* and theologians*, writes:

A reliable contact with connections in Rome suggested that we write to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and to the Pope, that especially the Congregation would take notice if people cared.

2) This battle is not going to help the Church in the eyes of non-Catholics. Sheen was very passionate about helping people find the true Faith, although he knows it was not any effort of his that brought them into the Church:

I could no more make someone else a Christian by my own influence than I could turn a sawdust doll into a pretty little child of six. I am, nonetheless, grateful that the Lord used me to bring others to Himself. I have always had a deep passion for helping others find faith. …

I am only a porter who opens the door; it is the Lord Who walks in and does the carpentry and the masonry and the rebuilding on the inside.

However, he realized the deleterious effect that scandals could have on those outside the Church, as he writes in Fullness of Christ:

Why is it that the world is always so scandalized at a scandal in the Church? Why does it always blame a bad Catholic more than it blames a bad Mohammedan, if it is not because it expects so much more of the Catholic? Any fallen-away Catholic whose name is quoted as a by-word of sin, and who is supposed to be an argument against the Church, is really a strong Catholic credential. The seriousness of any fall depends on the height from which one has fallen, and since one can fall from no greater height than union with Christ in His Mystical Body, the fall is accordingly greater. … The very horror the world expresses at the fall of a Catholic is the measure of the high virtue that expects of him.

So, instead of bashing Cardinal Dolan or Bishop Jenky in this debate over the final resting-place of Venerable Sheen, let us pray for the success of Sheen’s canonization cause, and pray that this squabble will be solved peacefully, without turning anyone away from the Church.

God Love Y’all!

Venerable Fulton Sheen, pray for us!

Prayer for Sheen’s Canonization:

Heavenly Father, source of all holiness, You raise up within the Church in every age men and women who serve with heroic love and dedication. You have blessed Your Church through the life and ministry of Your faithful servant, Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. He has written and spoken well of Your Divine Son, Jesus Christ, and was a true instrument of the Holy Spirit in touching the hearts of countless people.

If it be according to Your Will, for the honor and glory of the Most Holy Trinity and for the salvation of souls, we ask You to move the Church to proclaim him a saint. We ask this prayer through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


+Most Reverend Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., Bishop of Peoria

Emily C. Hurt

Emily C. Hurt

Emily C. Hurt is a 2012 graduate of Christendom College with a Bachelor's in Theology. She wrote her Senior Thesis on "Redemptive Suffering in the Theology of the Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen." When she's not job-hunting or reading Fulton Sheen, she writes about the writings of Fulton Sheen, redemptive suffering, and her alma mater at her blog, www.theological-librarian.blogspot.com.

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