NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - On All Saints' Day, two Catholic dioceses battled in court over the remains of a future saint: Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen.
As ChurchMilitant.com has extensively reported, the cause for canonization of the beloved television personality was stalled when the New York archdiocese refused in 2014 to turn over the remains of Abp. Sheen to the Peoria diocese, which has spearheaded his cause for sainthood since 2002. Peoria, headed by Bp. Daniel Jenky, has spent about $1 million in advancing Sheen's cause, and just after the first miracle through Sheen's intercession had been confirmed and the process of beatification could advance, Cdl. Timothy Dolan of New York rejected the possibility of moving his remains out of the city.
After two years of deadlock and fruitless meetings with Dolan, Joan Sheen Cunningham, Sheen's closest living relative, sued the New York archdiocese to allow Sheen's remains to be moved to Peoria.
In Tuesday's court hearing, Judge Arlene Bluth said the case was the "first" of its kind.
"There haven't been any cases of inferred intent where a person ends up a saint," Bluth noted, referring to Cunningham's argument that her uncle would never have agreed to be buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York if he had known he'd one day be declared a saint.
"Can you imagine a man who gave his entire life [to] the Church ... standing here saying, 'No, I don't want to become a saint. Don't move my body'?" argued Steven Cohn, Cunningham's lawyer.
Bluth asked at one point, "Why can't he be a saint even if he's in New York?" John Callagy, representing New York, cautioned Bluth not to meddle in Church law, which is outside the civil courts' jurisdiction.
Bluth later admitted she knew of no other cases "where the interred wound up being a saint." The judge ultimately said she'd issue her final ruling at a later date.
ChurchMilitant.com spoke with Joan Sheen Cunningham, who said she was "happy with the proceedings" and would wait until the judgment of the court before commenting. She clarified that Bluth had offered no expected date as to her ruling.
Commenting outside of court, Sheen's niece told New York Daily News, "In his lifetime, he had [clashes with the hierarchy], and now he's having it in his death."
The court hearing had originally been scheduled to take place September 20, but the court adjourned the hearing until November 1 in order to have more time to review the filed documents.
Cohn spoke with ChurchMilitant.com in September and said his client has shown "excellent reasons" to have Abp. Sheen's remains moved. "I would be surprised if her reasoning doesn't prevail," Cohn commented at the time.
Speaking with ChurchMilitant.com in September, Cunningham had said that Dolan, with whom she has personally met twice, had initially agreed to the proposal to send her uncle's remains to Peoria, but is now opposed to the arrangements. "I've met with the cardinal before," she commented, "and I can't understand why he kind of changed his mind about things."
According to Cunningham, the Board of Trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Sheen is currently buried, had agreed that his remains could be moved. "Then I don't know what happened," she said. "Then the cardinal came in and decided he didn't like the arrangements that we were working on, and our only recourse then was to go to the court."
"Those arrangements that we were working on have all been done away with," she added.
She confirmed that the vicar general, Msgr. Greg Mustaciuolo, had shown opposition to her wishes to move her uncle's remains. "I did get a letter from him at one time," she confirmed, and said Mustaciuolo's letter contained arguments "against moving the body."
"I have not heard from him since that one letter," Cunningham commented.
It was Cdl. Dolan's inaction that caused Cunningham to file the court petition. Her initial meeting with His Excellency, which took place in 2014, happened on Cunningham's initiative. "I called the cardinal," she said.
Dolan then met with her, Cunningham's son, and the chancellor of the Peoria diocese. They discussed, among other things, the possibility of having Sheen's remains in two shrines, "but nothing happened," she said, "nothing really happened. The cardinal didn't say too much about it."
The second meeting with Dolan occurred in early 2016, and came about again on Cunningham's initiative. "Nothing happened for the longest time again. I called again and got it going again — not that we really got anyplace, to tell you the truth," she said about her meeting with the prelate. "Actually, it amounted to nothing."
After further inaction on the part of the archdiocese followed by outright opposition, Cunningham felt the need to pursue court action.
"It's just a 14-year tug of war between Bp. Jenky and the cardinal," she had lamented.