Vatican still silent about why Fulton Sheen sainthood effort delayed, Peoria bishop says

The Journal Star [Peoria IL]

August 18, 2021

By Nick Vlahos

PEORIA — It’s going on two years since the Vatican interrupted the sainthood path of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

When and if that effort resumes isn’t clear — not even to the incoming bishop of the Catholic diocese where Sheen was born, grew up and was ordained. 

Sheen’s remains, entombed in Peoria, already are drawing religious pilgrims to the area regularly.

“Let me say it this way: If there is something out there, if there is some reason why his cause should not go forward, I think we should have a clear understanding of why that is,” said Louis Tylka, coadjutor bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.

“Since nobody has given that, I have to believe that there’s got to be some reason why there was a pause, but it’s only a pause. When it was paused, they didn’t say, ‘It’s over.'”

Continuing to ‘promote his cause’ for sainthood

Tylka arrived in Peoria last year as heir apparent to Bishop Daniel Jenky, who is expected to retire in early 2022. Jenky has been a leader of the yearslong sainthood push for Sheen, the renowned theologian and televangelist from the Peoria area.

But about three weeks before Sheen was to have been beatified, in December 2019 in Peoria, the Vatican postponed the ceremony. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked for further consideration regarding Sheen’s case, it was reported then.

In the year Tylka has been coadjutor bishop, the diocese has not heard from the Vatican regarding Sheen’s status, he said.

During a recent interview in his office at the Spalding Pastoral Center, Tylka suggested the Sheen-related silence from Rome has been frustrating.

“I get asked all the time, when am I going to make Fulton Sheen a saint,” he said. “The answer is, ‘I’m not going to make him a saint, because I don’t have that authority.’

“What I can do is continue to promote his cause for canonization. But I also can promote his life and his legacy, which is not dependent upon whether or not he becomes a saint.”

Rochester diocese put a hold on the process

The last step before sainthood is beatification. That papal declaration suggests a deceased person lived a life that was exceptionally holy and at least one miracle was attributed to their intercession. 

After the Sheen beatification was postponed, it was revealed Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, N.Y., requested the hold. Matano suggested possible malfeasance regarding Sheen’s administrative handling of at least two clerics known to have committed sex abuse against youths.

Sheen was bishop of Rochester from 1966 until 1969. There has been no evidence Sheen was involved directly in sexual abuse or misconduct.

According to Peoria officials, investigations of Matano’s evidence by them and by the Vatican revealed no wrongdoing by Sheen. 

In a statement issued last week in response to Journal Star questions, the Rochester diocese said it hasn’t had subsequent communications with the Peoria diocese or with the Vatican.

“We respect the competency of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in this matter,” the statement read in part. “We will have no further comment.”

The congregation is the Vatican department that oversees canonization.

In this file photo from 1968, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, center, greets some Peoria friends shortly after celebrating Mass at St. Patrick's Church while commemorating the parish's 100th anniversary. - C. MERCER/JOURNAL STAR FILE
In this file photo from 1968, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, center, greets some Peoria friends shortly after celebrating Mass at St. Patrick’s Church while commemorating the parish’s 100th anniversary. – C. MERCER/JOURNAL STAR FILE

A 2019 New York state law allows people to sue for child sexual-abuse claims beyond the statute of limitations. Most of the lawsuits target Catholic clerics and supervisors accused of protecting them, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The window for those lawsuits was to close last August, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted an extension until last week. Tylka suggested the length of the Sheen-beatification pause might be related to the New York issues.

“Just in the climate we live in in our country and in the world today, I think I can only speculate that they would be fearful that something could come up,” Tylka said.

“The sin of abuse that has taken place in the church is a sin that we will continue to have to pay. Not that the church is the only place that abuse has ever taken place, but we have to accept our responsibility. We have to work with every victim.”

Sheen sainthood would be ‘huge’ for Peoria

Sheen was born in 1895 in the Woodford County city of El Paso. He spent most of his youth in Peoria, where he attended high school at old Spalding Institute. He was ordained in 1919 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

The casket bearing the remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen is carried into St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria on Thursday, June 27, 2019, completing the transfer that began before dawn at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. - Journal Star File Photo
The casket bearing the remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen is carried into St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria on Thursday, June 27, 2019, completing the transfer that began before dawn at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. – Journal Star File Photo

The archbishop became a national figure as a pioneer of televangelism, most notably through his 1950s TV program “Life is Worth Living.” He died in 1979 in New York.

Sheen’s remains were the subject of an ecclesiastical tug of war between the Peoria diocese and the Archdiocese of New York. Sheen had been buried in New York, but his body needed to be moved to Peoria for his sainthood cause to progress.

After years of legal back-and-forth, a pro-Peoria court ruling led to Sheen’s remains being exhumed in June 2019 and moved to a crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The Sheen tomb attracts a steady stream of visitors — at least 300 in one recent week, Tylka said. Should Sheen become a saint, that number probably would spike, given the continued interest in him among Catholics, according to the bishop.

“It would be huge,” Tylka said. “There will be people from around the world who will flock to Peoria to visit his tomb, to pray in the presence of his remains.”

Pilgrims also might visit other local Sheen-related spots, Tylka said, including a Spalding Pastoral Center museum dedicated to him. Not on display there yet is one of the Emmy Awards that Sheen received for his TV work.

Sheen’s nonagenarian niece Joan Sheen Cunningham donated the Emmy during a visit in May to Peoria, Tylka said. Cunningham was instrumental in Peoria’s victorious effort to receive Sheen’s remains.

“It’s in the vault. It’s heavy,” a chuckling Tylka said about the Emmy.

Tylka doesn’t appear to consider Sheen’s canonization disruption a laughing matter. He suggested a visit to Rome might be in order if more information from the Vatican isn’t forthcoming soon.

In the interim, Tylka appears to be keeping as much faith as he can.

“I have to trust that in God’s time and under God’s plan, it will come to fruition,” he said.