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Fulton Sheen and the Long Tradition of Relic Battles

At the end of June, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s remains were transferred from the Archdiocese of New York to the Diocese of Peoria in Illinois. The transfer was preceded by three years of litigation between the diocese where Archbishop Sheen served as a priest and became a popular radio personality and the archdiocese where he served as an auxiliary bishop and became a TV star. The fact that two Catholic dioceses went to court in a dispute for the remains of a saintly man may seem odd, but actually it is part of a long tradition.

Relics — and conflicts over relics — have been kind of a “Catholic sport” for centuries. It is an unfortunate byproduct of a long-standing tradition: devotion for the saints or people we consider saints. We are called to pray for the intercession of saints and to honor them as role models for our lives. But devotion can lead to excesses.

In his book “The Waning of the Middle Ages,” published in 1919,  Dutch historian Johan Huizinga gives us several examples. In a chapter dedicated to the devotion of saints, Huizinga tells the reader about “the monks of Fossanova, who, after Saint Thomas Aquinas had died in their monastery, in their fear of losing the relic, did not shrink from decapitating, boiling and preserving the body.”

As if cooking a corpse wasn’t gross enough, there were other forms of desecration. According to Huizinga, “[d]uring the lying in state of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, in 1231, a crowd of worshippers came and cut or tore strips of the linen enveloping her face; they cut off the hair, the nails.”

Death wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for desecration. In the year 1000, according to Huizinga, a group of Umbrian peasants “wished to kill St. Romuald, the hermit, in order to make sure of his precious bones.”

Preserving the relics was so important that some devotees were ready to cook corpses or even kill people they considered saints. But Catholics in the Middle Ages didn’t always fight for the saints’ relics. Huizinga also tells us that “[i]n 1392, King Charles VI of France, on the occasion of a solemn feast, was seen to distribute ribs of his ancestor, Saint Louis; to Pierre d’Ailly and to his uncles Berry and Burgundy he gave entire ribs; to the prelates one bone to divide between them, which they proceeded to do after the meal.”

The devotion was real, but the ways to express it was deranged. The passionate devotion of our ancestors, Huizinga shows, inspired macabre, sacrilegious and even criminal acts.

Archbishop Sheen isn’t St. Louis or St. Romuald. He was a perfect 20th-century man. He was the biggest Catholic star during the age of radio and then television. His Sunday radio program, which started in 1930, was so popular that he received more than 3,000 letters per week. When the show moved to TV, his weekly fan mail soared to 8,000 letters.

But Archbishop Sheen was Catholic, which means he’s part of a 2,000-year tradition. And the story of the trial to decide where to put his remains echoes the old stories Huizinga collected in his book. The devotion for saints and their relics, which was so powerful in medieval times, is also present and relevant in our era of Twitter and Instagram.

Last month, Pope Francis gave Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople a famous reliquary containing bone fragments believed to belong to St. Peter. We know the importance of a relic of St. Peter and the long division between Orthodox and Catholics. With his gesture, the Holy Father was teaching a lesson about the importance of relics and how to use them to promote unity among Christians.

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