‘I’m happy this public fight is over’: A friend on the court case over Fulton Sheen’s remains

Fulton Sheen

Although he died in 1979, Archbishop Fulton Sheen remains in the news. A famous and much-loved communicator of the Faith during the 1940s and 1950s in America, his TV series Life is Worth Living was watched by millions when they were broadcast. They are still thought of as a touchstone for how to spread the Gospel by harnessing modern media. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, a current well-known broadcaster has acknowledged the influence of Sheen on his own apostolate.

The recent news that he is to be beatified comes at the conclusion to several years of legal wrangling between New York and Peoria as to where Sheen’s body should rest.

Mgr Hilary Franco, whose memoir, Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend, I blogged about in October 2014, has given me his own views on the recent ruling by the New York Court of Appeals allowing Sheen’s remains to be moved to Peoria. He defends Cardinal Dolan of New York who had wanted to keep Sheen’s body at St Patrick’s, asserting that “It was the will of the deceased, expressed many times, to be buried in New York.”

In 2014 Sheen’s niece, Mrs Joan Cunningham, applied to have her uncle’s body moved back to Peoria, based on the diocese of Peoria telling her this would be necessary for the Cause for his beatification to go forward. However, Mgr Franco points out to me that a body is not necessary for the beatification process; second-class relics, such as items owned by Sheen, would have sufficed. He also explains that “the reason for the Court’s decision was based on Archbishop Sheen’s desire for holiness – which the Court confused with a desire for beatification and canonisation.”

Franco, who spent two days in the witness stand at the hearing, tells me that he “tried to explain that, as the last surviving member of the saintly bishop’s household and having witnessed his great humility, Sheen would never have thought of the possibility that one day he might be beatified.”

As to the Court’s ruling, Franco confesses that his feelings are mixed: “I’m obviously disappointed at the decision, not only because it violates the desire of my friend in life, but also because it will most likely lessen devotion to him. Far more people would be able to encounter his remains in New York and be moved to pray to God through his intercession, than in Peoria.” However, he adds “I am also happy, frankly, that this public fight in the civil court over my friend’s remains will be over.”

Supporters of Archbishop Sheen, declared Venerable in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, will rejoice that his Cause will now go forward. I have just been reading The Cries of Jesus from the Cross (Sophia Institute Press), an anthology compiled from seven books written by Sheen between 1933 and 1945. Full of spiritual insights borne of intense contemplation of the life of Christ, the book reminds one of how Sheen communicated so effectively with audiences and readers by his eloquence, his psychological penetration and his understanding of the power of the media.

As Franco writes in his memoir, Sheen once told him he had become a priest through love of Christ, saying “I was called to tell this story. I never tire of telling it.” His future beatification will only increase worldwide interest in his life, his broadcasts and his writings.