If the 20th century was the American Century, then the 1950’s were the American Catholic Decade.
No longer a swarm of unwashed immies, “we” had triumphed: Catholic schools, colleges, hospitals, were everywhere. Edwin O’Connor’s Last Hurrah was a best seller. “We” had given the world Joe McCarthy and Jack Kennedy, and our triumphalism was headed for a peak when “our” guy, JFK, was elected in 1960.
One place where we weren’t so apparent was on TV.
Oh, sure, we knew Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Loretta Young were Catholics – who didn’t?– but most of the characters who peopled comedies and dramas were deracinated, generic Protestants. Even when they were so obviously meant to be Catholic. As my father pointed out when we watched The Honeymooners, in real life, Ralph Kramden would have been Timmy O’Brien. Or Jackie Gleason. (Fast forward a couple of decades and why, pray tell, was Archie Bunker’s name not Timmy O’Brien? Or Carroll O’Connor?)
To see Catholics in action on the large or small screen, we had to watch reruns of 1930’s movies in which Jimmy Cagney played the gangster and Pat O’Brien played the priest. Or wait for a Wagon Train episode that had a nun in its story line. Truly, the only Catholics that appeared regularly as characters were the bad guys on The Untouchables. (Not that religion was mentioned, but all those Italian names…)
But then – mirabile dictu, mirabile visu – there was Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, appearing weekly in our living rooms to talk about Catholicism.
Why, he even won two Emmys.
Who needed Uncle Miltie when we had Uncle Fultie?
Just how influential was Fulton Sheen?
Forget those two Emmys.
Consider for a moment that Martin Sheen’s real last name is Estevez. Funny to think that Martin Sheen would adopt the name of someone as reactionary as Archbishop Sheen, given that Martin Sheen is a pretty well known lefty…
There was also a boy in my grammar school named Fulton after the good archbishop.
Anyway, Fulton Sheen, who’s been dead for 35 years, is back in the news.
He’s suddenly newsworthy because Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is in a tug of war over his remains with Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois.
Here’s the story.
Although most of Sheen’s career was spent in The Big City, he was born and ordained in Peoria. Seizing on this connection, the Diocese of Peoria went ahead and built a museum in Sheen’s honor, and has also been out there promoting Sheen’s candidacy for sainthood.
It has [also] drawn up blueprints for an elaborate shrine in its main cathedral to house his tomb and sketched out an entire devotional campus it hopes to complete when its campaign to have him declared the first American-born male saint succeeds. (Source: NY Times)
The problem is that Sheen has already been lodged in a home-away-from-home:
Since his death in 1979, his remains have been sealed in a white marble crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the city where he spent much of his life. And though the Peoria diocese says it was promised the remains, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who considers Archbishop Sheen something of a personal hero, has refused to part with them, citing the wishes of the archbishop and his family.
In a seeming snit over Cardinal Dolan’s refusal to give Sheen’s body up, Bishop Jenky backed off the work that Peoria had been doing to support the Sheen sainthood initiative, just at a time when Sheen was on the verge of beatification, the final step before being declared a saint. (If you want to know more about the process, I’m quite sure there’s some YouTube or another out there that’s got Fulton J. Sheen pontificating (archbishop-icating?) on the topic.)
There are precedents for divvying up saintly remains.
St. Catherine of Siena is enshrined in Rome, but her head is revered in a basilica in Siena, Italy. St. Francis Xavier, the 16th-century missionary, is entombed in Goa, India, but his right arm is in Rome, in a reliquary at the Church of the Gesu.
I had not been aware that Catherine of Siena had a revered, severed head, but I am quite familiar with Francis Xavier’s arm. When I was in first grade, it toured the country and came to our church. So my sister Kath and I got to kiss the glass case containing said arm. (Now, if you think there’s something weird about a religion that has six-year-old kids kissing the mummified arm of a long-dead saint, well, all I can say is go watch Fulton J. Sheen, why don’t you.)
Cardinal Dolan, apparently, is not interested in the type of compromise that would result in letting Peoria have an arm or a leg. Let alone a head.
Cardinal Dolan’s latest offer to Bishop Jenky was that he could have bone fragments and other relics from Archbishop Sheen’s coffin.
This should have yielded enough material to satisfy both Peoria’s desire that they have some remains to venerate, and the sainthood rule that stipulates that:
By canon law, the body should be exhumed and authenticated before beatification, and relics — bone fragments and other physical remains — taken for the purpose of veneration.
But it apparently wasn’t good enough for Peoria, and Cardinal Dolan was not about to let Bishop Jenky get his hands on the full body. Joan Sheen Cunningham, an elderly relative of Fulton Sheen, has speculated on this:
“I think the cardinal was worried that maybe Bishop Jenky would cut off a hand or an arm or something.”
Having visited the cemetery where the bulk of my husband’s ashes are buried on a few occasions, and having now made several trips to spread bits of the remaining ashes around in places and on the graves of people that were special to Jim, I know all about venerating remains. In fact, once I get through Jim’s list, I will be keeping a bit of him – the part that’s getting rocketed into space this October – with me on my mantle.
But holey moley, this haggling over the remains of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen really is the house of weird, isn’t it?
And a tip of my bishop’s mitre to my sister – and fellow Francis Xavier arm venerator – Kathleen for pointing this article out to me. Bless you, my child.