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Fulton Sheen and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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Crypt of St. Charles Borromeo

Deirdre Mundy - published on 07/09/16

Fighting over the corpse of a holy man is certainly positively medieval -- and that's a positive thing

This week, my local Catholic paper reported the latest installment in the continuing saga of Fulton Sheen’s body. Peoria refuses to continue with Sheen’s beatification proceedings until they have his body in the crypt they’ve prepared for it. They claim they deserve Sheen because he was ordained at their cathedral, his parents are buried there, and they’ve spent time and the money to advance his cause for sainthood. They’ve convinced one of Sheen’s living relatives to go to court and move the body.

Meanwhile, New York has said they’d be happy to lend Peoria Sheen’s body, but only if they get it back after the beatification. Their argument is that Sheen spent most of his time as a priest in New York, wanted to be buried there, and made some of his greatest contributions to Catholic media and the US Church while living in New York City.

Some of my friends and family are writhing in embarrassment over the dispute. They’re afraid it makes the Church look backwards. “Positively medieval,” they complain. I answer their objections with a gleeful grin. Fighting over the corpse of a holy man is certainly positively medieval, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a positive thing.

Foot of St. Teresa of Avila,   visitingthe Cathedral of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Bjelovar, Croatia/Fraxinus Croat-cc
Foot of St. Teresa of Avila, visitingthe Cathedral of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Bjelovar, Croatia/Fraxinus Croat-cc

The Church has a long history of body-snatching. For instance, according to legends, when Catherine of Siena died at Rome, the Romans refused to send her body home. The Sienese sneaked into Rome in the middle of the night, planning to take their saint back. However, the Romans were expecting them and put guards around the tomb. The men from Siena realized they’d never be able to sneak the whole body out, so they cut off Catherine’s head and hid it in a sack. On the way out of town, they were stopped, but when the guards opened the bag, they saw only rose petals. Catherine’s head returned to Siena, where you can still stand face to face with a Doctor of the Church. Her body, which in my opinion is the less interesting part of her, is still in Rome.

St. Nicholas had an even more astounding journey, as sailors from Bari raced against the Venetians to be the first to snatch the heretic-puncher’s body from its original resting place. The account includes multiple visions, heavenly odors, riots in the streets and monks who swear to defend the saint’s body with their very lives. When you read these stories of furta sacra, that is “relic theft,” you can’t help but wonder why our Church has gotten so boring in modern times.

Have we started living too much in our heads? Have we forgotten that Jesus came to us in the flesh, that he gave us sacraments to wed the spiritual and the physical just as we are body and soul? Have American Catholics become dull and colorless as we’ve picked up the Calvinist tendencies of our neighbors? Have we forgotten that Jesus doesn’t just “come into our hearts,” but actually into our bodies?

Bishop_Fulton_J._Sheen_1956

The Sheen saga delivers a resounding rebuke to those who fear the Catholic Church has changed over time. We’re not just intellectuals, living our faith only in our heads. We’re not Albigenisans, exalting the soul and denying the body, and we’re not modern Evangelicals, treating sacraments as merely symbols. Bodies are good, bodies matter, and we’re willing to go to court to prove it. I can’t help thinking that Fulton Sheen would join me in chuckling as the dispute between New York and Peoria threatens to drag the American Church back into the Middle Ages.

Read more…Was Fulton Sheen a prophet?

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