Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Fulton's Feast – For "Blessed Sheen," Peoria Races To Beatification Day

As last week in Baltimore was marked by a general mood of siege mentality among the US bishops, these last weeks of 2019 will bring a rare feel-good moment for the bench: for just the second time ever, the elevation of one of their own to the altars... and the Big One at that.

Barely four months since the decade-long "Body Wars" ended with the transfer of Venerable Fulton Sheen's remains from St Patrick's Cathedral in New York back to his native Peoria – then the Pope's confirmation within days of a miracle attributed to his intercession – late yesterday the Illinois diocese announced that the Beatification Mass for the pioneering televangelist will be held on Saturday, December 21st in its St Mary's Cathedral, where Sheen was ordained a priest and is now entombed.

Per custom since the last step before sainthood was returned to the local churches by then-Pope Benedict XVI, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, will lead the rites as papal legate.

While a month's notice for an event of the kind is unusually rapid – all the more in a prominent instance like this – the timing reflects Peoria's wish that Sheen's beatification be held in the centenary year of his ordination to the priesthood, which took place in St Mary's 100 years ago last September, as well as the 40th anniversary of the archbishop's death on December 9th. That said, the site-choice and timing (on the Saturday before Christmas, amid rural Illinois' eventful winters) make for a Sheen-sized logistical headache, above all as what will likely be the most high-profile elevation of any Stateside Blessed will be limited to roughly 1,000 attendees.

Given the mammoth devotion to "Bishop" Sheen – in particular, among the baby boomers who made his weekly prime-time catecheses television's highest-rated program of the 1950s and early '60s – odds are they could fill the cathedral just with the clergy who'd want to show up.

In the two prior instances of major beatifications on US soil, the 2016 Oklahoma City Mass that elevated the homegrown martyr Stanley Rother was held in the city's convention center, and what was initially pegged as an over-ambitious setup for a crowd of 15,000 ended up being swamped by a turnout that stretched outside the space. Moreover, two years ago yesterday in Detroit, the beatification of the Capuchin friar Solanus Casey – revered throughout the Midwest as a miracle-worker in life – took over Ford Field, the city's NFL stadium, filling most of its 70,000 seats.

Again, given the exponential magnitude of Blessed Sheen's cult on the global stage – to say nothing of the landmark of the first US-born bishop to reach the threshold of canonization – the move for a small venue, however symbolic, is baffling at best. As one commentor noted, though, perhaps the most fitting thing about the decision is how it means practically everyone will be left to watch the rites on TV: the medium that arguably made Sheen the 20th century's most significant and beloved American cleric.

On a happier front, one of the key calls Rome and Peoria face over the next month is the choice of Sheen's feast-day – a celebration which, by definition, will initially be restricted to either the latter diocese alone or the wider Chicago province (which comprises all of Illinois).

Given the tradition that a feast is held on the date of death of the respective saint or blessed, that's not an option in this case as December 9th is taken by the commemoration of the Guadalupe visionary St Juan Diego, while in a more general sense, observances ranked as memorials are muted in deference to Advent. Among other dates likewise off the table are September 20th – Blessed Fulton's priestly ordination-date – as the mandatory memorial of the Korean Martyrs already holds it, as well as June 11th (his ordination as a bishop), the feast of St Barnabas.

The one significant life-date that is open, however, is Sheen's birthday, May 8th... which, falling as it does during the Marian month, also makes for an apt call-back to the poem he famously made his own on-air:

All told, with Sheen becoming the first US bishop to be sanctioned for devotion since John Nepoumecene Neumann, the Czech-born fourth bishop of Philadelphia, was beatified in 1963 (then canonized in 1977), the new blessed adds to an impressive array of figures elevated over the last decade or so whose feasts would potentially argue for inclusion on the national calendar.

Beyond the emergence of Rother – the first North American in modern times to be declared a martyr in odium fidei – and Casey, as the recent canonizations of Óscar Romero and John Henry Newman now allow for their global veneration, there is a notable backlog of observances which to some degree enjoy the requisite "national cultus," yet are not currently permitted for celebration across the States. Of course, any bishop may petition the USCCB's Secretariat for Divine Worship for the addition of a feast, which (upon the recommendation of its staff) would then be presented to the entire bench for a vote and need the confirmatio of the Holy See before taking effect.

Even for the ample queue, however, something says the wider take-up of Fulton's feast won't take terribly long.