NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The Catholic Bishop of Peoria is finally “naming names” in his battle with New York over the body of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
In a statement released Friday, Bishop Daniel Jenky said New York’s former Archbishop, Cardinal Edward Egan, told him in 2002 and again in 2004 that Egan would work to “facilitate” the relocation of Sheen’s remains from New York City to Peoria “at the appropriate time.”
The current Archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, took office in 2009, and has long maintained that relocating the body would run contrary to the wishes of Sheen and his surviving relatives.
Sheen was a renowned evangelist who drew a TV audience in the millions for his weekly show in the 1950s. He died in 1979, and is buried in the crypt under the main altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
The Diocese of Peoria is leading the effort to have Sheen declared a saint. Sheen was born in Central Illinois in 1895 and ordained a priest in Peoria in 1919.
On Wednesday, Jenky shocked the Catholic world by announcing “with immense sadness” that Peoria was suspending the sainthood effort. He blamed the New York Archdiocese for refusing to transfer Sheen’s body to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
It is highly unusual for two Catholic bishops to engage in such a public spat.
Pressed for details on the alleged pledge to relocate the body, Jenky said in Friday’s statement that he “was told by Cardinal Egan in September 2002 that New York was not interested in [leading] the [sainthood] cause. [Egan] also indicated that at the appropriate time he would facilitate the transfer of the body to Peoria.”
“In December 2004, Cardinal Egan again confirmed at a meeting in New York with Bishop Jenky that he continued to support the efforts of the Cause and reassured him that he would work to transfer the body at the appropriate time to be enshrined in the Peoria Cathedral,” the statement said.
But in 2011, Cardinal Dolan released a letter to the Diocese of Peoria, making clear he opposed relocating Sheen’s body, and did not believe the Archdiocese had made a formal pledge to do so.
In a statement released Thursday, the Archdiocese of New York said there’s been a “dialogue” with Peoria, but no order from Rome to move the body.
“Discussions with Peoria centered on two areas: the possible exhumation and study of the body; and the possible collection of ‘first class relics’ of Archbishop Sheen,” the statement said. “Cardinal Timothy Dolan did express a hesitance in exhuming the body, unless the Congregation for the Causes of Saints directed that it be done, unless the process was approved by the family, that it be done modestly and reverently, and that the exhumation met the requirements of New York State law.”
Earlier this year, Sheen’s niece Joan Cunningham told CBS New York’s Tony Aiello the late archbishop wanted to be buried in New York and the family won’t move him. On Thursday, Cunningham said they are willing to allow relics from his coffin to be shared with the church in Peoria if that will restart the sainthood efforts.
The New York Archdiocese said it is willing to pick up the campaign for Sheen if Peoria refuses to resume it.
“I don’t know how this is going to be resolved,” Catholic blogger Greg Kandra said. “I think they’re going to have to decide to do what’s best for the church and best for the people of God.”
Kandra said Sheen’s wit and wisdom drew thousands to the Catholic church.
“There’s really, I think, what you could almost call a cult of Fulton Sheen that has grown up, and people are tremendously devoted to him,” Kandra said.
The road to sainthood is a multi-step process that can take decades – even centuries.
The Diocese of Peoria began the process, known as a “cause for sainthood,” in 2002.
In 2012, former Pope Benedict XVI moved Sheen a step closer to recognition as a saint by declaring he had lived a “life of heroic virtue.” Benedict spoke of his admiration for Sheen, and said he had met him many times in Rome during the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and 1963.
Earlier this year, a Vatican committee attributed a miracle to Sheen’s intercession, putting him on the verge of beatification, just one step shy of canonization.
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