Tuesday afternoon, the diocese of Peoria, IL, issued a press release that shook the US Catholic Church. In it, Bishop Daniel Jenky announced that the long-anticipated beatification of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, scheduled for December 21, would be postponed indefinitely.
After years of tug-of-war between Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York over the relocation of Sheen’s body from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan to a new shrine in Peoria dedicated to Sheen, this last-minute postponement of the beatification ceremony was a stomach punch to his devotees, who had already endured many bumps along Sheen’s road towards canonization. Once the date of the beatification was officially set by the Vatican, it appeared that this was a done deal, finally.
Numerous Sheen supporters had already arranged to travel to Illinois for the occasion. Hotel arrangements had been made. Dinners and receptions in honor of the occasion had been scheduled. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon less than three weeks before the date, it was suddenly canceled.
There was little explanation provided in the press release. Clearly, Bp. Jenky was extremely unhappy with the development. Initially, the only clue as to why it was delayed was the statement that “a few members” of the US episcopate had convinced the Holy See to make the decision.
It is no understatement that this is quite unprecedented in the history of the Church. Certainly, many sainthood causes have been delayed or dropped altogether. Many of us are aware of the politics and controversies surrounding the sainthood causes of Pope Pius XII and Archbishop Oscar Romero, both of which were temporarily put on hold before their cases moved forward again. This past August, many fans of GK Chesterton were disappointed when his cause for sainthood was dropped. Also notable in this regard is the cause of the Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, who was beatified by John Paul II, but whose case is opposed by many Serbian Orthodox Christians and has been subject to ongoing study and dialogue over the past few years.
Perhaps the only scheduled beatification in recent history to be canceled indefinitely (and not yet to be rescheduled) was that of Leon Dehon, a French priest and the founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, who died in 1925. His beatification was scheduled for April 24, 2005, but was automatically postponed due to the death of John Paul II, earlier that month (according to the standard protocol following the death of a pope).
The Washington Post reported that earlier in the year,
A French historian drew attention to seven controversial texts by Dehon. According to extracts published in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, Dehon wrote that Jews were ‘thirsty for Gold’ and that ‘lust for money is a racial instinct in them’; he called the Talmud ‘a manual for the bandit, the corrupter, the social destroyer’; and he recommended several measures later adopted by the Nazis, including that Jews wear special markings, live in ghettos and be excluded from land ownership, judgeships and teaching positions.
The newly-elected Pope Benedict decided to put the beatification on hold and to have Dehon’s writings undergo a review by a committee of Cardinals.
The Post quoted author Kenneth L. Woodward as saying,
‘I don’t recall any last-minute hitch like this in modern times,’ he said. ‘Remember, to get this far, they have declared him heroically virtuous and they’ve had a miracle of intercession attributed to him, so all the necessary blocks are in place.’
It’s safe to say, then, that Fulton Sheen’s case is even more unprecedented. With Sheen, there was no change in popes, and the final approval for the beatification date, according to Bp. Jenky just happened on November 18.
The diocesan statement says that they had, “[p]rovided the Diocese of Peoria and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints through the Office of the Apostolic Nuncio with documentation that expressed concern about advancing the cause for the beatification of Archbishop Sheen at this time without a further review of his role in priests’ assignments.”
Although he was originally ordained a priest of the diocese of Peoria, Sheen spent much of his time in the state of New York, where he served as an Auxiliary Bishop from 1951-1966, and then as Bishop of Rochester from 1966-69. He died in New York in 1979, and was buried there (as mentioned above).
In August of this year, New York waived the statute of limitations on sexual abuse for a period of one year, and the state Attorney General is reviewing the files and records of the Catholic dioceses in New York. Already a large number of abuse cases have been filed since the window opened.
This appears to be a precautionary measure in Sheen’s case, and the argument in support of the postponement is that delaying the beatification until the “window” is closed is prudent. CNA went on to say that sources said “that [Bp.] Matano was especially concerned that the attorney general could time the release of an announcement concerning Sheen to coincide with the beatification, potentially marring the celebration with allegations of scandal.”
Since the bishops of New York traveled to Rome for their ad limina visit in mid-November, it’s conceivable that Matano (and others) might have pled their case in favor of delay then (or shortly afterward. The Prefect for the Congregation for Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, met with Pope Francis on November 29, so it is apparent that the final decision to delay was made then.
I think it’s fair to say that whether Sheen’s cause will resume depends upon what, if anything, is discovered about his tenure as bishop of Rochester. Obviously the concerns and fears are serious enough to warrant this unprecedented action. Right now, we don’t know what those concerns are, but these sorts of things don’t usually remain secret forever.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.