Niece Speaks for Her Soon-to-Be Sainted Uncle

     MANHATTAN (CN) — The elderly niece of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, TV’s original megastar priest, sued the Archdiocese of New York for permission to move her late uncle’s body from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Illinois, for his “imminent” canonization.
     Sheen spent two decades broadcasting the late-night radio show “The Catholic Hour,” before turning to the new medium of television in, with “Life Is Worth Living” and then “The Fulton Sheen Programs.”
     As bishop, he received an Emmy Award for “Life Is Worth Living” in 1951.
     Sheen’s body rests in a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, but his oldest surviving niece, 88-year-old Joan Sheen Cunningham, asked the New York County Supreme Court on Monday for permission to move her late uncle back to his hometown of Peoria.
     Cunningham says that “if Archbishop Sheen knew during his lifetime that he would be declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church that it would have been his wish that his remains be interred in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria,” where he grew up.
     In addition, she says, Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria led the campaign for her uncle’s canonization, beginning in 2002.
     Archbishop Sheen grew up in “The River City” and was ordained as a priest there before pursuing graduate studies in Europe and accepting a teaching position with the Catholic University of America.
     Radio and silver-screen accolades came later. His radio program went to war against Adolf Hitler, whom the bishop called an example of the “Anti-Christ.”
     On “Life Is Worth Living,” Sheen took on Josef Stalin in one episode, giving a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” substituting the Soviet leader’s name for Caesar.
     Stalin had a fatal stroke a week later.
     Though Bishop Jenky dutifully investigated whether Sheen could be declared a saint, Cunningham says that Cardinal Edward Egan, in New York, said he “had no interest” in pursuing that cause himself, in a letter of Aug. 26, 2002.
     “Your Excellency,” the cardinal wrote, referring to Jenky, “Be assured that I would have no objection whatsoever to the opening of the Cause in the Diocese of Peoria. Indeed, inasmuch as Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a native of the Diocese of Peoria, served his first pastoral assignment in the City of Peoria and is the most renowned of your diocesan clergy, I believe that the Diocese of Peoria is the ideal diocese to initiate a Cause for Canonization, were it to be decided [by the Vatican] that such a Cause should be initiated.”
     Cunningham says this was not the only sign that Egan would not take up her uncle’s cause.
     “Furthermore, in meetings between Cardinal Egan and Bishop Jenky in 2002, Cardinal Egan told Bishop Jenky that the Archdiocese was neither interested nor able to put forth the time and effort on such a Cause since the Archdiocese had ‘other priorities,'” her petition states. “Cardinal Egan also told Bishop Jenky that if the Cause succeeded that he [Cardinal Egan] and the Archdiocese would consent to transferring Archbishop Sheen’s remains to Peoria.”
     Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said the archdiocese is “pleased to learn that there appears to be progress for the cause of the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, a cause for which we have all worked hard.”
     “Several weeks ago, the archdiocese, with the advice and consent of Joan Sheen Cunningham, the late archbishop’s beloved niece, put forward a proposal that would balance the personal wish of Archbishop Sheen to be permanently buried beneath the high altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, with the understandable desire of the Diocese of Peoria to have his earthly remains present in their diocese for the celebration of his long hoped-for beatification,” Zwilling wrote in an email.
     “The archdiocese had asked that the Diocese of Peoria officially reopen the cause, with the understanding that the archbishop’s earthly remains would then be sent to Peoria for a beatification ceremony as soon as one was announced, and then returned after an appropriate time to the crypt beneath the high altar of Saint Patrick’s,” Zwilling continued. “The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome tells us all that is holding up the cause is the letter from the Bishop of Peoria reopening the cause he closed two years ago.”
     Cunningham says her uncle’s impending beatification is a Peoria-led effort.
     “Through the dedication and hard work of Bishop Jenky, [Cunningham], and myriad other individuals in Peoria, Archbishop Sheen’s Beautification [sic] toward the path to Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church is imminent,” the petition states.
     “In the very near future, the Vatican will direct that the beautification ceremony take place in Peoria since it has been the diocese to promote Archbishop Sheen’s Cause for Sainthood in Rome. It is the desire of [Cunningham] and her siblings to transfer their uncle’s remains to a marble crypt at the side altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.”
     Cunningham says her uncle would have wanted the ceremony to take place in Peoria, as the city of his first Holy Communion, his parents’ cemetery, and the homes of his next of kin.
     Responding to the lawsuit, Zwilling said: “While we will need some time to review the petition that was announced today by the Diocese of Peoria, it is definitely encouraging that the Diocese of Peoria seems ready to reopen the cause so that the much desired process towards beatification and canonization can resume.
     “Bishop Daniel Jenky and all who have done so much to advance the cause of the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen are owed a great debt of gratitude for all of the work that they have accomplished thus far,” the spokesman said. “If it be God’s will, may we soon be celebrating the news that Archbishop Sheen will be beatified in Peoria.”
     Cunningham is represented by Steven Cohn, in Carle Place, N.Y.

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