Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Bodies of Saints

Over at Crisis, Professor Donald S. Prudlo has written a provocatively titled article, "Thank Goodness Fulton Sheen's Cause Has Been Suspended." (To read it. go to

Personally, I really don't know enough about the circumstances that seem to have led to the apparent suspension of Archbishop Sheen's Cause to offer any assessment or opinion of my own regarding what should or should not have happened or what should or should not happen in the future. I can well remember Bishop Sheen, as he then was, lecturing on black-and-white TV in the 1950s and early 1960s. He was certainly an impressive figure at the time, and his public prominence in the secular media was certainly an impressive accomplishment that has hardly been equalled since then by any American Catholic personality (nor is it likely to be equalled in the foreseeable future, given the dramatic changes in both Church and media since those long gone, glory days.) To me, Sheen certainly seems to be an eminently appropriate candidate for sainthood. God willing, he will in due course be raised to the honor of the altar. 

Meanwhile, his Cause appears to have stalled amid circumstances that have prompted much comment among those interested in such issues and disposed to comment about them. Professor Prudlo's article is, as I said above, provocatively titled - perhaps more provocatively so than his conclusion warrants, but on the other hand provocatively enough to get readers. (I, for one, am certainly not a regular Crisis reader. it was the provocative title that sent me there!) That said, however, I think Prudlo does make two particularly interesting points that are worthy of attention.

Prudlo, it should be stipulated, is not opposed to Sheen's Cause, per se. In fact, he concludes by saying, "Bishop Sheen, I am convinced, will be canonized." He does, however, applaud the slowing down of the process. He stresses the importance of popular devotion developing "from the ground up" and accordingly favors what he calls "the old fifty-year rule." That approach would "permit enough time to make sure that a cult was genuine, that it was a result of the unfolding of an authentic discernment of holiness in the life of the Church," which "should not conform itself to this age of instant gratification, with its attendant shallowness." Perhaps more controversially, he argues that that older rule provided "that people too intimately involved in the life and career of the potential saint had been mostly laid in their graves." There may be an obvious disadvantage to waiting too long, since the testimony of those who actually knew the Servant of God can contribute something especially unique to our understanding of him or her. And certainly there have been some historically rapids canonizations (St. Thomas Becket. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic), the wisdom and appropriateness of which for the Church's long-term life can hardly be doubted. On the other hand, at least as a general rule, Prudlo's point is well taken, that a cult's endurance "long after the principals are dead is a telling mark of its validity."

Prudlo's other argument is not about the timing of the Cause but is a historical-theological reflection on the significance of the apparent disagreement about the disposition of Sheen's body and relics, which seems to have played a part in the decision to suspend the Cause. He notes that "faithful Catholics responded generally with dismay at what they saw as a tussle unworthy of princes of the Church." (In today's media climate especially, I think that is not an unimportant consideration.) But Prudlo sees something else - what he calls "a fervent affirmation of Incarnational Christianity."

In my limited experience, I tend to think that, along with the procedural requirement for miracles, and perhaps even more than miracles, the canonization process's emphasis on the Servant of God's body and tomb and relics seem increasingly out-of-step with what is an increasingly typical contemporary modern mindset - the same mindset, it should be recalled, that is increasingly dismissive of (and even uncomprehending about) traditional Christian funeral practices and rites, which traditionally presuppose the importance of reverence for the actual body of the deceased. 

So perhaps Prudlo's point really is particularly timely. "The bodies and tombs of the saints," he notes, "are a privileged nexus, a place where heaven and earth come together in a special way. There, before the devotee, lie the earthly remains of one whose soul is now in heaven, beholding the beatific vision. There one supplicates before not simply moldering bones and flesh, but that very body redeemed by the Risen Christ, which will with certitude be raised unto glory on the last day. ... We are not saved by Gnostic spiritualism, we are saved through bread and wine, water and oil, and yes, even through the bodies of the dead. ... The bodies of saints, besides the Eucharist, are the greatest thing possessed by the Church on earth, and both of them are present witnesses to the deep Incarnational reality of historical Christianity."

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