Blog: Fulton Sheen Relics Row

Last week saw the abrupt halting of the cause for the beatification of Fulton Sheen – Auxiliary Bishop of New York in the 1950s, later Bishop of Rochester, and Emmy Award-winning TV personality, with programmes that got audiences of 30 million at his peakSheen’s cause had got past the diocesan stage (where the candidate’s reputation for holiness is examined, among other things), the Vatican had recognised his ‘heroic virtue’, allowing him to be referred to as ‘Venerable’, and the official recognition of a miracle attributed to his intercession (the ‘reviving’ of a baby boy an hour after his birth) meant the stage was set for beatification (and if the vagaries of the saint-making system fox you, the CTS booklet How Saints Are Canonised will explain all). Any skeletons were likely to have been shaken out of the cupboard long before now. Indeed, the stalling of the cause has nothing to do with Sheen’s behaviour, rather it is to do with his body.

The Diocese of Peoria, Sheen’s home diocese, have been pushing the cause for his canonisation, expecting to establish a national shrine in his hometown of Peoria, where he was also ordained. With the beatification in the offing, Peoria’s Bishop Jenky asked the Archdiocese of New York’ s Cardinal Dolan to release Sheen’s remains to the Diocese, exhuming them from his burial place in the crypt of New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Traditionally, the body of the beatification candidate is exhumed and inspected at this stage, allowing both the opportunity to see if the body is incorrupt (undecomposed – a sure sign of holiness), and to take first class relics (bones, or whatever is left of the body), which will provide a focus for devotion for the future saint’s cult. On Thursday, Peoria announced that New York won’t comply with the exhumation and that the cause has been indefinitely halted, causing an outcry among the many supporters of this charismatic figure. Well done to National Catholic Reporter for getting to the ‘bones of contention’ pun before anyone else.

Initially, this seemed like a relics turf war of the type described in Patrick Geary’s classic Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (Princeton, 1978). The book opens with the story of Bishop Geylo of Langres who, coming back from pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, spent a night in the village of the church of Saint Prudentius. Hearing of the saint’s powers, and finding his shrine in a state of disrepair, the bishop’s chaplain suggested, somewhat mischievously, that they take the relics home to Langres (steal them, in other words). ‘Geylo agreed and secretly removed the relics which he then brought back with him to Burgundy. There he deposited them in Bèze where they were received with great joy. In response to this reception Prudentius worked numerous miracles for the faithful of the region.’ The book is full of stories of thefts and trading of relics (Felix, the relic-monger being the practitioner par excellence of the latter), with monasteries and churches depending on both the cash and cachet they brought them. And of course, the greater the fame of the saint, the more valuable the relic.

Sheen was a charismatic, photogenic and very public figure, who is remembered in the US as a star of the golden age of television. His status as a popular cultural figure can’t have hindered the great popular swell of support for his canonisation among US Catholics. While other saints take some effort to get to know through their writings or those of their biographers, Sheen is right there, in your face, with TV appearances which were an entertaining blend of motivational speaking, preaching and something verging on stand-up.

He is an instantly engaging, if slightly ‘unusual’ figure, and would be a very modern saint, perhaps only on a par with Pope John Paul II for his media visibility during his lifetime. In a classic sign of the Church wanting to take ownership of a wildly popular cult rather than see it adopted outside their control, the usual 50 year wait after the candidate’s death was not observed in Sheen’s case, and his cause was opened within just 23 years. Here’s a prospective saint with potential. Diocesan rivalry isn’t dead, and relics bring both prestige and the pilgrim’s pound today just as they did in Geylo of Langres’ time. Sheen’s niece has indeed alleged that Bishop Jenky ‘just thinks [the relics] would be a big drawing card to Peoria’.

But wanting to keep that ‘drawing card’ for themselves can’t be the explanation for New York’s actions – no exhumation, no canonisation, so they don’t gain the relics of a saint. The reason has in fact less precedent. It was rumoured that the Archdiocese of New York were refusing the exhumation because they were reacting against the very cult of relics itself as ‘distasteful’ to modern Americans. This was to some extent confirmed with a statement from the Archdiocese, stating not only that Sheen wished to be laid to rest at Saint Patrick’s and that his family members support his remains staying there, but further:

Regarding first-class relics, Cardinal Dolan does object to the dismemberment of the Archbishop’s body. However, if the body is exhumed, there is the strong likelihood that some relics would be present in the coffin, which could be reverently collected without disturbing the body, and then shared generously with the Diocese of Peoria.

This rejection of the dividing of the holy body is not entirely new, with Caroline Walker Bynum beginning her Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (1991) with Guibert of Nogent’s horror over the alleged relics of Christ – teeth, umbilical cord, foreskin – ‘Fragmentation was, to Guibert, the ultimate insult and scandal; aiding and abetting it by translating and mutilating holy cadavers struck him as obscene’, but dismemberment of the bodies of saints for maximum use of their relics has been routine. Dolan’s attitude perhaps points up a change in mood in the contemporary Catholic Church and an evolution of tradition. Things could get very gung-ho in the middle ages – in 1191, Saint Hugh of Lincoln outraged the monks of the abbey of Fécamp by biting off a bit of Mary Magdalene’s finger from the mummified arm the abbey possessed, according to Adam, Abbot of Eynsham’s Magna Vita S. Hugonis – but even saints of the twentieth century have been routinely parceled up into a variety of reliquaries. Thérèse of Lisieux was canonised in 1925 and her first class relics occupy several reliquaries, including a bone fragment at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Illinois (a long way from her native Normandy), a humerus in the basilica dedicated to her in Lisieux, and some leg bones in the casket that is on an almost constant world tour, and which came to the UK in late 2009.

Are we seeing a move towards ‘wholeness’ in relics practices? This has been a norm for Popes – John Paul II was exhumed from the Vatican grottoes but re-interred wholesale in Saint Peter’s. Instead, vials of blood drawn from him for medical purposes during his long illness can be seen at the Sanktuarium św. Jana Pawła II in Kraków and on tour. John XXIII, meanwhile, was fully embalmed, Lenin-style, and can be seen at the altar of Saint Jerome at Saint Peter’s. There is, of course, a well-established precedent for saints remaining intact, from the whole mummified corpse of Saint Roseline (d. 1329) at her Chagall-decorated chapel in Les-Arcs-sur-Argens, Provence (although her eyes, somewhat eerily, occupy a separate reliquary), to the complete, although wax-covered body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes (d. 1879). In both cases wholeness, even in an extreme state of desiccation, connotes bodily incorruption, particularly associated with virgin saints. However, John, Roseline and Bernadette are also visual spectacles – they can be seen and venerated, fulfilling the role of the relic, which will not be the case if Sheen remains in the crypt of Saint Patrick’s.

The idea that the body of a future saint – from the earliest days of the Church the focal point of their cult and not without deep relevance in an incarnational faith that promises bodily resurrection – should not be ‘disturbed’ is striking. The Archdiocese’s statement seems to suggest that only second class relics (pieces of clothing and other items that have been in contact with the saint) should be taken. Sheen, very well-known and tangible as a flesh and blood individual, not surrounded by the obfuscation of saints from before the age of film and photography, is ultimately as much a figure of secular culture as religious culture. This, perhaps, is the line in the sand – disturbing Sheen’s remains clashes too deeply with common conceptions of respect for the dead and risks controversy outside the Church. The Sheen case shows how sainthood, with its ancient foundations (despite constant tinkering with the system by recent popes), presents an obstacle as the Catholic Church attempts to walk a line between modernity and tradition.