I recently heard some of the old radio recordings of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen – and my goodness, they brought back memories for me. I recalled seeing him on our old black-and-white TV when I was a kid. My parents watched the program regularly too, and even though they weren’t terribly religious, the words from this man were profound.
Bishop Sheen was a man who projected strength and confidence and knowledge and, while he was preaching the word of God for his Catholic religion, his message reached anyone who would listen. And listen they did.
Bishop Sheen was one of the early TV stars – if not the first.
At one point his program aired opposite the Milton Berle Show, and the ratings bounced back and forth.
The Sheen program, “Life is Worth Living,” aired on the Du Mont TV Network from 1952 to 1955, then on ABC thru 1957 and later from 1958-1961 to 1968. The program won an Emmy while on Du Mont.
Later he was named an archbishop, and he continued his preaching and writing and reaching out to all people. It all came to an end when he died of cardiovascular problems on Dec. 9, 1979 in New York City. His body was entombed in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral crypt.
One might have thought that was the end of the story.
No, not at all. It really was just the beginning of a religious and legal battle royal between his closest living relative in Illinois and the Archdiocese of New York.
Joan Sheen Cunningham is his niece and has legal rights over his body. Her first legal petition was brought on June 14, 2016, requesting that the body be moved to the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, where he was born and raised, went to seminary and was ordained.
Along with this effort to move Archbishop Sheen’s body is the fact that the Peoria diocese is advancing the efforts for his future sainthood and they want a shrine built for him there. The canonization cause was opened in 2002, and in 2012, Pope Benedict proclaimed him “Venerable.” Miracles for his beatification have been approved for him to be declared “blessed.”
According to Church Militant, the Peoria diocese has spent some $1 million over 16 years advancing Sheen’s sainthood cause; but New York has contributed nothing, and in fact is opposed to moving the body. That has snarled the canonization procedures.
It appears this legal battle over the body stems from the fact that Cardinal Edward Egan agreed to move the body; but his successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, refused and continues to do so as the case moves through the courts.
In March of this year, the Catholic News Service reported that the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ruled 5-0 that the remains of Archbishop Sheen should be transferred to Illinois.
This was the third time the New York court system ruled in Cunningham’s favor and against New York. On May 2 the highest court said, “Appeal is dismissed without costs, by the Court sua sponte, upon the ground that no substantial constitutional question is directly involved.”
The response to Church Militant from the New York Archdiocese: “The trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral disagreed with the court’s decision and their attorneys are reviewing the ruling as they contemplate possible next steps.”
Less than two weeks later, the New York Archdiocese again appealed the decision … meaning the costs keep rising. While the archdiocese has not released any estimates on how much all this has cost, the estimates are enormous – in the millions.
The law firm representing the archdiocese is Kelley, Drye & Warren. While they do not release any estimates of client fees, the average rate charged by New York Attorney’s is $756 an hour. Court filings say four attorneys were in court for the archdiocese, although an eyewitness at the hearing said at one point, eight attorneys were there.
Were they on the clock? Who knows. Inasmuch as the case has been in constant litigation since June 2016, so far the cost estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This latest appeal is the sixth attempt over just the last three years to thwart the efforts of Archbishop Sheen’s family to return him to his home – and allow the continuation of his canonization.
The enormous costs to New York are like rubbing salt in the wounds of financial problems the archdiocese faces. There is huge criticism of the archdiocese over the closing of parishes and schools ostensibly for lack of funds. At the same time, the New York Times reported Cardinal Dolan vacations at a $3.5 million home in New York State that had been donated for clergy retreats. The eight-bedroom manor house is on seven acres, with a private tennis court, and both an outdoor and indoor pool. Apparently now, it’s just for Dolan’s use.
The optics are not good, especially for Catholics who are continually asked for donations and contributions for church needs.
From my view, what’s worse is what is being done to Archbishop Sheen. For a man of honor and goodness, about whom never was there a breath of scandal and in fact, who is on the doorstep of sainthood, to have become the object of a venal and selfish legal battle by his own church, is a sin of the worse sort.
Cardinal Dolan – call your confessor. You need him.