Venerable Fulton Sheen 'should be made a saint', says Peoria coadjutor bishop

Archbishop Fulton Sheen Venerable Fulton Sheen.

Proponents of the beatification of Venerable Fulton Sheen are still searching for answers about the cause, nearly two years after that process was paused.

“I don’t know much,” Bishop Louis Tylka, Coadjutor Bishop of Peoria, told CNA in an interview. “Basically, the cause was put on hold, and there really hasn’t been movement.”

Venerable Sheen, an American evangelist and television personality who died in 1979, was set to be beatified in Peoria, where he had served as a priest, in December 2019. The ceremony was indefinitely postponed by the Vatican just weeks before the scheduled ceremony, at the request of Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester.

Archbishop Sheen had been Bishop of Rochester from 1966 to 1969.

In a Dec. 5, 2019 statement, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Rochester said that while it “appreciates the many accomplishments that Archbishop Sheen achieved in his lifetime,” a cause for beatification “must entail a review of the person’s entire life,” and therefore believed “a further review of his role in priests’ assignments” was warranted before Venerable Sheen’s cause could proceed.

Earlier this month, a window allowing lawsuits over child sexual abuse claims beyond the statute of limitations closed in New York. Empire State lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in 2019, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations, allowing childhood victims of sexual abuse to take legal action. The deadline for such lawsuits, initially set for August 2020, was extended to August 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, nearly 10,000 lawsuits were filed in that window, including “thousands of accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, more than a thousand against Boy Scout leaders, and still more against teachers, coaches, health care workers, and family members.”

Bishop Tylka said that there is speculation that the closing of that window could set the stage for the beatification to proceed.

“But again, that’s pure speculation,” Bishop Tylka said. “We’ll certainly be trying to work with all those involved to move forward.”

“I think the immediate hope is now that this window is done, as quickly as possible, all those files can be reviewed,” Bishop Tylka said, and those files will show Venerable Sheen was not involved in any misconduct.

The 2019 statement from the Rochester diocese added that “There are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard.”

Bishop Tylka said he has not been made aware of any accusations of misconduct against Venerable Sheen.

“We have not uncovered any, any situation that would question his actions as a bishop or as a priest,” Bishop Tylka said, adding there is currently no indication of any impropriety on Venerable Sheen’s part.

“We have to deal with this in an honest and open way,” he said.

Bishop Tylka said he hopes the beatification will proceed, “and God willing, we’ll have another miracle and canonize him as a saint.”

Bishop Tylka said he is optimistic that Venerable Sheen and his legacy will stand the test of time.

“I believe the man should be made a saint,” Bishop Tylka said. “I have no power to make him a saint. What I can do, in my diocese, is hold him up as an exemplary model of discipleship to Jesus Christ.”

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Sheen was born in Illinois in 1895, and was 24 when he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria.

He was appointed auxiliary bishop of New York in 1951, and he remained there until his appointment as Bishop of Rochester in 1966. He retired in 1969, and moved back to New York City until his death in 1979.

The Peoria diocese opened the cause for Sheen’s canonization in 2002, after Archdiocese of New York said it would not explore the case. In 2012, Benedict XVI recognized the heroic virtues of the archbishop.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints promulgated a decree in July 2019 recognizing a miracle attributed to Venerable Sheen's intercession, which allowed for his beatification.

The miracle involves the unexplained recovery of James Fulton Engstrom, a boy born apparently stillborn in September 2010 to Bonnie and Travis Engstrom of the Peoria-area town of Goodfield. He showed no signs of life as medical professionals tried to revive him. The child’s mother and father prayed to Archbishop Sheen to heal their son.

The now-postponed beatification had been scheduled following legal battles in civil courts over the location of Venerable Sheen's body. His corpse was transferred to the Peoria cathedral in June 2019 after a protracted series of suits involving the archbishop's niece and closest living relative, Joan Sheen Cunningham; the Peoria diocese; and the New York archdiocese, where his body had first been interred.

A spokesperson for the Rochester diocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNA.

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