March 9th, 2012
10:23 PM ET
By Jen Christensen, CNN
(CNN) - Surrounded by TV cameras and an excited crowd, the archbishop of Omaha, Nebraska, taped a notice to the doors of St. Cecilia’s Church last week announcing to the world that his archdiocese was launching a formal process to try to elevate one of its most famous members to Catholicism’s highest honor.
Archbishop George Lucas wants the Vatican to recognize Father Edward J. Flanagan as a saint.
As the founder of Boys Town – the famous Nebraska community for at-risk kids – Flanagan radically transformed how people handle troubled youth. He is known for the saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.”
But just because someone does good doesn’t entitle that person to be a saint, at least in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Many faiths have their saints, but attaining sainthood may be hardest in the Catholic Church.
By posting a notice about Flanagan, the Omaha archdiocese is embarking on a complicated legal, scientific and surprisingly expensive journey that could take over 100 years to accomplish – if sainthood is achieved at all.
“To be recognized as a saint these days, it may cost upwards of $1 million,” said Steven Wolf, the lead volunteer and president of the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion. “You essentially need it to pay for a good lawyer and an expensive multi-media campaign.”
Wolf’s organization grew out of a Boys Town alumni group that that came together some 13 years ago to make Flanagan’s case. The group has held monthly prayer meetings at Flanagan's tomb and leads pilgrimages to Boys Town to speak about his life and accomplishments.
“You need splashy videos, a social media blitz, a website, prayer cards and podcasts, not to mention we need to find a couple of miracles,” Wolf said about the sainthood process. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
In the early days of the church, achieving sainthood was easier.
“Until the 13th century, beatification is a local matter and the devotion is the most significant part of the process,” said church historian Alberto Melloni.
If enough people thought you were a saint and prayed to you after your death, you became a saint. But that informal process left room for less-than-holy politicking and bribery on behalf of wannabe saints.
Without much vetting, even some fictional characters became saints, including St. Christopher, who for centuries was revered as the patron saint of travelers. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed his saint day from its calendar because it couldn’t prove he ever existed.
To avoid more St. Christophers, the church has over the years set down much more rigid rules for sainthood.
Flanagan, who died in 1948, easily met the first criterion for sainthood: being dead for at least five years.
The next steps are more challenging. There needs to be spontaneous public support for someone to be placed in the canon of saints – a step known as canonization. Wolf says Flanagan’s candidacy has support in spades.
“Right now, we can’t really get our arms around how many people are involved in praying for Father Flanagan’s intercession,” he said. “It’s not like you get a membership card.”
But since launching a website in 2004 dedicated to making Flanagan a saint, Wolf’s group has heard from people in 36 states and nine countries seeking Flanagan’s help in finding a job, curing a relative’s cancer or saving an aunt who suffered an aneurysm.
After spontaneous public support for a sainthood candidate is demonstrated, the bishop of the diocese where the candidate died needs to open a formal investigation.
But Flanagan didn’t die in Omaha, where he did most of his work. He died of a heart attack while on a mission to Berlin on behalf of President Harry Truman, who had sent Flanagan to address the orphan crisis caused by World War II.
Because Flanagan’s main base of support is in Omaha, advocates for his cause had to petition the Vatican to make an exception to the rule to allow them to lead the sainthood effort.
The Vatican granted the rule change, clearing the way for the next step: The Omaha archdiocese must assemble a tribunal to gather evidence that Flanagan was truly holy.
At a Mass at the Immaculate Conception Church at Boys Town this month, Flanagan will be named a “servant of God” and Lucas will set up the tribunal, which will interview witnesses about Flanagan’s virtue.
If the tribunal rules in his favor, it will pass witness testimony – along with every piece of material written by Flanagan it can collect – to the Vatican. There, a lawyer called a postulator organizes the evidence and presents it in what the church calls a positio to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints.
Flanagan’s group has already hired its postulator, a Rome-based lawyer who has become known in the Italian press as “the saint maker.” The lawyer, Andrea Ambrosi, says that 400 current saints have him to thank – in part, at least – for the honor. And he has a caseload of 30 more aspiring saints.
Wolf hired Ambrosi to give Flanagan his best shot at sainthood. “We know of a cause in Michigan that’s been stuck for 60 years, and they’ve been through seven postulators,” Wolf said. “There are not a lot of people doing this sort of thing effectively. If you have any misstep you could be stuck forever.”
Once Ambrosi assembles Flanagan’s positio, nine Catholic theologians examine the dossier. A majority vote among them advances the cause to Pope Benedict XVI, who can designate Flanagan as “venerable.”
But the church also requires two miracles from the prospective saint after his or her death. Peter Gumpel, who scrutinized hundreds of cases of saints in his nearly 50 years as a “devil’s advocate,” fact-checking positios, explains that miracles essentially seal the deal.
“A miracle is some extraordinary fact, especially in the medical field – a cure that nobody expected and suddenly against all expectations this person is cured,” he said. “Miracles are still required because the church has to be absolutely sure what we are doing in canonizing someone conforms to the will of God. To do this, we ask for a sign from God.”
The public campaign for Flanagan has only just started, but Wolf says six people have contacted him to say they believe they’ve experienced a miracle by praying for Flanagan’s intercession.
Wolf hopes at least one of the reported miracles will stand up to church scrutiny. Several local doctors will have to testify that there is no medical explanation for someone’s cure. The person who has been cured will have to testify, too.
That testimony is scrutinized by top doctors and scientists hired by the Vatican – and examined by the pope – before it can be considered a miracle. At that point, a sainthood candidate is beatified. That’s what happened to Pope John Paul II last year, after the Vatican ruled that the case of a French nun who prayed to him and was cured of her Parkinson’s disease was a bona fide miracle.
Then the whole miracle confirmation process begins again, with a second miracle that has transpired since beatification.
“Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, it is expensive, but it is worth it,” Wolf said. The tribunal, the lawyer in Rome, and the travel required to press Flanagan’s case all cost money.
But Wolf argues that the more people who know about Flanagan’s life and work, the more who will be helped by the priest, as he was.
Wolf didn’t know Flanagan personally, but he is a 1980 graduate of Boys Town. Going there, he says, changed his life.
“Before Boys Town, I spent time in runaway shelters,” he said. “I was locked up in juvenile detention. I didn’t have the best environment growing up,” he said. “But when I got to Boys Town, things changed.”
Today, Wolf helps run a public affairs consulting firm and has five daughters.
“Father Flanagan gave a damn about people like me – kids most people were ready to write off as losers – and it matters,” he said. “That man is a saint. I’ve been won over. I know others will be, too.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.