Uncle Fulty. Home at Last.

unclefulty copyVenerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s remains were transferred last June from the Archdiocese of New York to Peoria, Illinois.

The move came after three years of sometimes bitter wrangling between Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who wanted Sheen’s body to repose in the town of Sheen’s birth, and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who said he was a great admirer of Sheen and wanted him to rest in New York.

The issue was finally settled in Peoria’s favor, clearing the way for the former archbishop’s sainthood cause to go forward.

Earlier it was reported that Sheen’s beatification – the final step before sainthood – would be delayed because Catholic hierarchs couldn’t agree where his body should end up.

For many non-Catholics, this dispute over a body seems as unseemly as the revelation that Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke’s bones had been fileted from his body by rogue morticians so it could be sold for transplant tissue.

For many Catholics, the dispute over Sheen’s body was more ethereal. It meant the late, beloved television preacher would have to wait for the official recognition that he is doing saintly things in heaven along with newly installed Saints Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II.

For Christians with a broader view of sainthood, the dispute makes little sense. Most Protestant denominations regard a saint as anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ. Some are born again, others make decisions to find Jesus, and Lutherans believe Jesus has found them. Luther himself declared simul justus et peccator – we are all simultaneously sinners and saints. Can I get an Amen?

In short, one does not even have to be dead to qualify for sainthood.  The Apostle Paul, himself long recognized by the Catholic Church as an official saint, agreed. To Paul a saint was any member of the body of Christ, quick or dead. Note, for example, his salutation to the church at Corinth, “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 1:2).”

That should have settled the issue for Saint Fulton of Peoria. In his lifetime, he not only knew Jesus in faith; he also embarked on a career that led millions to know Jesus.

For those of us of a certain age (Boomers in our fifties and sixties), Sheen was one of the first stars of 1950s television. His show Life is Worth Living (1951 to 1957) sometimes attracted more viewers than “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, who hosted the first nationally broadcast variety show on the small screen. Berle liked to be called “Uncle Milty,” and soon Sheen’s fans were calling him “Uncle Fulty.”

I was a devoted fan of both Milty and Fulty. I remember one show in which Sheen read a letter from a nine-year-old (someone my age) who expressed fondness for the bishop’s skullcap. Sheen removed the cap from his head and announced he would send it to the child. I was thrilled by Sheen’s recognition of the kids in his audience. And a little jealous that I didn’t think to ask for his hat.

[For younger readers who have never heard of Sheen, there are dozens of examples of his television preaching on YouTube. Here’s an example.]

In 1957, a spiteful New York Cardinal Francis Spellman forced Life is Worth Living off the air. Yet Sheen always spoke forgivingly of Spellman, which is a collateral sign of his saintliness. And to be sure, Sheen’s saintly career abounded as director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, bishop of Rochester, N.Y., and titular bishop of Neoportus (New Port, Wales).

I shook Sheen’s hand in October 1967 when I was in Rome attending an Air Force religious retreat. Pope Paul VI (now beatified but until recently stuck in the airless anteroom of indecision while the church determined his saintliness) was hosting Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in a historic confab. Church hierarchs and celebrities came from all over the world to watch.  We Americans standing in St. Peters immediately recognized Fulton Sheen in the procession. Uncle Fulty, his white hair set off by his purple cap, reached out to our extended hands, smiling, winking, repeating, “Hi ya, how are ya, hi ya.” His charisma was irresistible.

Sheen died in 1979 and, despite his stated wishes to be buried in Calvary Cemetery Queens, he was entombed in a crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan while the bishops argued over his bones.

Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Sheen’s hometown of Peoria, Ill., asked New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan to fulfill a verbal promise by his predecessor to send the bones to Peoria for burial. Jenky apparently foressaw great possibilities for the consecrated body as a spiritual attraction for midwest pilgrims.

But Cardinal Dolan, a lifelong admirer of Sheen, said no way. He insisted the bones will remain in New York City where Sheen spent a large part of his life. The impasse – for reasons that mystify non-Catholics –halted the canonization process for three years.

What, non-liturgical Christians ask around their communion tables, slurping their Welches and noshing neat squares of white bread, does a corpse have to do with sainthood? Recognizing that the road to Catholic sainthood doesn’t always translate well within the Protestant yahootude, the New York Times  explained that this is not an unprecedented stalemate. “To be sure,” wrote the Times’ Sharon Otterman, “disputes over remains of saints are nothing new in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the past the resolution has sometimes been to divide the body. 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.”

But that macabre solution was ruled out for Sheen, and the late archbishop remained in that stale anteroom of indecision. That might seem very sad, unless you look at it from the point of view of millions of Protestants who knew they were saints as soon as they reached out in faith to Jesus.

And – if I may do so without offending millions of faithful Catholics who embrace the uncompromising requirements for sainthood that have been followed for centuries – perhaps I can offer a few words of comfort.

Saint Fulton of Peoria is not interred with his moldering bones. He has long since flown free to the saintly realm God arranged for him when he first encountered Jesus.

And with very little effort, I can imagine him chatting daily with some of the saints I knew so well: Saints Bertha and Goldie of Oneonta and Saint Doris of Sacketts Harbor, Saints Mary and Elmore of Morrisville, and Santo Beny de la Habana.

The fortunate thing for these saints is that they did not have to pass an unreasonably strident inquisition to prove their saintliness. I knew them well enough to doubt most of them could have advanced past the first step.

But I also know they joined the throng of saints the moment they reached out in faith to Jesus. It was at that moment they walked through the door into the bright light and pure air enjoyed by all God’s saints.

And – bones or no bones – it is in that magnificent mansion that Saint Fulton dwells, too. Now and forever.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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