Case of Boys Town founder shows long road to making a saint
Edward Flanagan, whom supporters are trying to make a saint, visiting Boys Town in 1942.
March 9th, 2012
10:23 PM ET

Case of Boys Town founder shows long road to making a saint

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.”

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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.

Archbishop George Lucas posts a notice at St. Celia's Roman Catholic Church in Omaha to officially launch the campaign to Edward Flanagan a saint.

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.

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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.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Miracles • Nebraska • Pope Benedict XVI

soundoff (492 Responses)
  1. Dragonrider

    When mentioning various Saints that the Church of Rome can't prove he forgot to mention the most famous, St Bridgette of Ireland the good and wonderfully Holy Lass is none other than the Pagan Goddess Brigid. Adopted by the early Church of Rome to try to steal followers from the true Pagan and Heathen Gods and Goddesses so they would follow the New Kid of The Block Jesus of Nazarus. Of course there is also a minor matter of the Church of Rome hijacking the spring Pagan Holiday of Ostara and calling it Easter but thats for another post at another time.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Gubernova

      Wow, everyone who's educated knows this. You need more than cursory logic to have your opinions respected...

      March 10, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  2. Kebos

    "embarking on a complicated legal, scientific and surprisingly"

    scientific? Are you kidding me!? There is nothing more unscientific than the "supernatural" whose basis is in the manipulation of the gullible masses. If there is a need to prop up the marketing end of the catholic church than Flanagan will be a saint very quickly.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  3. Dave

    Typical catholic idiocy. Blow a million bucks on vanity. How many hungry people could they feed with that million? Might as well use the money for toilet paper.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  4. Pope_Inquisitor

    Atheism is myth understood. RCC is bureaucratic corrupt misogynous dangerous cult. Saints, angels, demons, deities are pretend.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Prayer changes things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      March 10, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Dave

      Atheism is the natural state of all humans. We're all born atheists. It's only when we're corrupted, that we become theists. Religion is dangerous and unnatural, and detrimental to all mankind.

      Education flew people to the moon. Religion flew people into buildings.

      March 10, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 10, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Pope_Inquisitor

      Prayer changes the positions of the hands on the clock.

      March 10, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • JT

      Well...all children are born atheists and then indoctrinated by their parents into their particular cult and atheism is not relavent to all living things anyway. You need to come up with something else besides this constant one-liner all the time.

      March 10, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • just sayin

      All children are born with the breath of God and enter this world directly from Gods throne. We are Gods creation and made in His image with His desire that we return to Him forever by our own choice.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  6. martog

    1. You believe that the pope has personal conversations with God (that nobody else ever hears) and is infallible when speaking on matters of Church doctrine. You then wistfully ignore the fact that Church doctrine changes and that former popes therefore could not possibly have been “infallible”. Limbo, for example, was touted by pope after pope as a place where un-baptized babies who die go, until Pope Benedict XVI just eradicated it (or, more accurately, so watered it down as effectively eradicate it in a face saving way). Seems all those earlier “infallible” Popes were wrong – as they were on Adam and Eve v. evolution, heliocentricity v. egocentricity, and a host of other issues that required an amendment of official Church doctrine. You also ignore the innumerable murders, rampant corruption and other crimes committed over the centuries by your “infallible”, god-conversing popes.
    2. You reject the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours. You are blissfully (or intentionally) blind to the fact, that had you been born in another part of the World, you would be defending the local god(s) and disdaining the incorrectness of Catholic beliefs.
    3. You begrudgingly accept evolution (about a century after Darwin proved it and after accepting Genesis as literally true for about 2,000 years) and that Adam and Eve was totally made up, but then conveniently ignore that fact that your justification for Jesus dying on the cross (to save us from Original Sin) has therefore been eviscerated. Official Church literature still dictates a belief in this nonsense.
    4. You disdain native beliefs as “polytheist” and somehow “inferior” but cannot explain (i) why being polytheistic is any sillier than being monotheistic. Once you make the quantum leap into Wonderland by believing in sky-fairies, what difference does if make if you believe in one or many?; nor (ii) why Christians believe they are monotheistic, given that they believe in god, the devil, guardian angels, the holy spirit, Jesus, many demons in hell, the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, thousands of saints, all of whom apparently make Earthly appearances periodically, and all of whom inhabit their life-after-death lands with magic-sacred powers of some kind.
    5. You bemoan the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don`t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees or the 3,000 Israelites killed by Moses for worshipping the golden calf (or the dozen or so other slaughters condoned by the bible). You also like to look to god to for guidance in raising your children, ignoring the fact that he drowned his own – according to your Bible.
    6. You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that God impregnated Mary with himself, to give birth to himself, so he could sacrifice himself to himself to “forgive” an ”Original Sin” that we now all know never happened.
    7. You disdain gays as sinners, but have no problem when Lot got drunk and committed father-daughter in.cest (twice) or offered his daughters to a mob to be gang ra.ped, or when Moses, time and again, offered his wife up for the “pleasures” of the Egyptians to save his own skin.
    8. You believe that your god will cause anyone who does not accept your Bronze Age stories to suffer a penalty an infinite times worse than the death penalty (burning forever in excruciating torture) simply because of their healthy skepticism, yet maintain that god “loves them”.
    9. You will totally reject any scientific breakthrough that is inconsistent with your established doctrine, unless and until it is so generally accepted as to back you into a corner. While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you of the deep inanity of your silly faith, some priest doing magic hand signals over bread and wine is enough to convince you it is thereby transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus because of the priest’s magic powers (or “sacred powers” to the extent you see a difference).
    10. You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to Lourdes, Fátima and other magic places and prayers in general. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. The remaining 99.99% failure was simply “god moving in mysterious ways”. The fact that, if you ask for something repeatedly, over and over, year after year, sooner or later that thing is bound to happen anyway, has not even occurred to you. A stopped clock is right twice a day.
    11. You accept the stories in the Bible without question, despite not having the slightest idea of who actually wrote them, how credible these people were or how long the stories were written after the alleged events they record occurred. For example, it is impossible for Moses to have written the first five books of the Old Testament, as Catholics believe. For one, they record his death and events after his death. In fact, the chance of the Bible being historically accurate in any but the broadest terms is vanishingly small.
    Heavens, I could not fit them into ten. Maybe, if they pray hard enough to their sky-fairy, the Catholics can turn them into 10

    March 10, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Gusto Revea

      Thank you.

      March 10, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      re #1 : You also believe that after death, in a spiritual realm, where there are no dimensions of space-time, people "go", (ie TRANSITION), from Purgatory to heaven, both separate PLACES, in a TRANSITION, which takes time to move from one state to the other, (which would be, by definition, impossible, in an "eternal now"..which is also a meaningless phrase, as one can always find a more accurate clock).

      March 10, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • John

      Wow!! Your knowledge of Catholism is awful... you made 11 long winded generalizations, and all of them are false

      March 10, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • jack

      sooo wrong in soo many aspects but good story telling D)*$ H#%D

      March 10, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • aginghippy

      John and Jack, Martog's list is absolutely accurate, so I invite you to offer an equally accurate and intelligent rebuttal, or to kindly STFU.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      waiting....not ONE refutation. They obviously can't. Oh well, I guess we expected that. So much for the Ca school system.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Tom

      God bless the Catholic church. You should read the Catechism and then have an infrmed opinion about the Church. Jesus established it to protect and preserve the faith.

      It has been here for 2000 years. It's not going anywhere. And it doesn't change.

      March 10, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • martog

      Tom, you are obviously delusional. Get your head out of your Butt and study religious history INCLUDING the RCC. Than MAYBE you can refute intelligently anything I posted.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  7. nadine

    Hopefully, there won't be a Catholic church or any religion in 100 years.

    March 10, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Pope_Inquisitor

      let us hope religions disappear much sooner

      March 10, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  8. unowhoitsme

    Father Flanagan is already a saint in all the hearts of Boys Town...spend the money helping more boys.

    March 10, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      But that is not religion's way. They need mega churches, icons, and TV shows....

      March 10, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  9. herb

    Jesus teaches that EVERY person born to this world is born a Sinner, and the ONLY way to become a Saint is to be born again – through His word AND Lord Holy Spirit. You are born again a Saint, you CANNOT do ENOUGH good deeds to EVER become a Saint. He still says that ALL our works are like filthy rags in His eyes. Why? because a billion good deeds mixed with one evil deed is EVIL in His eyes.

    March 10, 2012 at 6:09 am |
    • Dave

      Your "jesus" was mistaken. As an atheist, I'm incapable of "sin".

      March 10, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      Yeah Dave ! I always thought that atheists couldn't commit blasphemy, but that is the next level ! Thank You !

      March 10, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Dave

      It's really simple, Buddy. The concept of "sin" is wholly man-made. The definition of it, is violating the precepts, guidelines or rules of one's chosen religious belief. As I rejected religion when I reached the age of reason, I cannot "sin".

      March 10, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Motar

      A more inclusive definition of "sin" is "separation from God". In that sense, we're all "born that way".

      March 10, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  10. polycarp pio


    March 10, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  11. Andy

    What? WHAT!!?? Obtaining sainthood now requires a slick advertizing campaign for Catholic recognition (in addition to three miracles and a good card trick) !? Really? The fact is, a saint is a saint, whether recognized by others or not.

    March 10, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  12. Leon

    This sainthood business is not at all biblical. An invention of Rome. Wake up people! You call yourselves "Christians" but you really are ignorant of God's teachings.

    March 10, 2012 at 5:05 am |
  13. Tusken Raider

    Religions crack me up.

    March 10, 2012 at 4:56 am |
  14. Ken Oberman

    Banging boys makes you a saint?

    March 10, 2012 at 4:55 am |
  15. ATLmatt

    seems to me that this money could be better spent on at risk youth that remains... i wonder what flanagan would recommend.

    March 10, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  16. kaye

    I feel like everyone needs to get their priorites straight. Stop spending money on sainthood. You are losing members everyday. Parish schools are closing all of the time. Maybe instead of spending all of this money on making someone a saint, you should put it into the communities, St. Louis is (was) a very Catholic city. In the last ten years about ten Catholic schools have closed. Maybe you should focus on keeping your present faith alive instead of idoliszng the past.

    March 10, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • Pope_Inquisitor

      RCC is dying ... good .. people are waking up to the 21st century ... outgrowing ancient myths

      March 10, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  17. AGuest9

    Boy's Town – Pedo Paradise

    March 10, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So, I take it you are looking for the Alternative lifestyles resort then by the same name?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  18. Zombies Eat Brains - Christians Are Safe

    What a perfect description of Catholicism: "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.”

    And he's buying a stairway to heaven. What a blatant example of religious corruption!

    March 9, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      The believers get cranky over atheists spending 15K$ on a couple of billboards, but I guess we (atheists) are supposed to remain silent while one diocese spends 1M$ on their favourite charlatan. If there was a god, wouldn't he want it to be obvious, much simpler and much, much less costly for someone to become a saint? Anyone want to guess how many starving children could be fed for 1M$?

      March 10, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Well seeing how The Catholic Church has been "feeding staving children" around the planet for longer than most of us have been alive .... maybe you should NOT be silent and ask them how you can help create a organization within the Atheist community to do the same.

      Or are yall' just one trick ponies and only know how to whine.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Thanks for the lecture but I do contribute – via The Richard Dawkins Foundation – richarddawkins.net.

      Am I correct in saying that you think it's OK for the RCC to spend (waste!) 1M$ on getting someone declared a saint because the RCC has earned that right due to their stellar prior behaviour?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Arrrgh....ok ..yah got me ...

      The other day they listed how much money, combined between Obama, Romney and Santorum are spending between now and November. Of course both the Democrat and Republican talking heads decried how much the other side are spending to elect a president. For me I think it is not cool to spend that much money to elect anyone but for the average now days cost to elect a president to a Heisman trophy winner is nuts a million in comparison is not that bad.

      Didn't you read ...I am suppose to be angry tonight... no peace, no middle and insults abound.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • martog

      The Vatican is one of the richest cities on the planet. Which Catholic delusion is used to explain away that fact? All that money would pretty much end starvation around the globe for a LONG time. Yet the 'church' still preaches No Birth Control Permitted and the population explodes creating more starving kids. Religion = Manmade Delusion to control the masses. It obviously works.......

      March 10, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • captain america

      For the record, hotairace is a butt in canadian pretending to be an American. When it says "we" it is full of sh it, It has no voice in America other than the one it has stolen. hotairace is the equivalent to dog sh it on these blogs sidewalks. There's your sign

      March 10, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  19. Father O'blivion

    I once heard da good fodder say,

    "There are no bad boys. Only those that won't drop their britches for the good fodder and play a little hide and seek. Nuthin' some good training can't fix."

    And the rest as they say, is history!

    March 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  20. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Wait.... is that...no, it couldn't be. Is that Mark the River Piddler in that photo???

    March 9, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • crickets chirping

      crickets chirping

      March 9, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You're welcome.

      March 9, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Father O'blivion

      Aye, Lassy I believe that is Markus in the photo then. You know I've missed ya Lass, hope you've been well my dear. I have been busy making pancakes for my flock of course.

      March 9, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Aye, Father, I ha' been weel, and thanks to ye for asking. I hope ye've enjoyed makin' the pancakes, then, Father, and wish ye well o'er the weekend!

      March 9, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Father O'blivion

      Aye, right back atcha lassy!

      March 9, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Yeah TomTom.. That's me second on the left and you before the operation next to me..... for some reason looking at the Priest head.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      Dear Mark,

      Shut the fuck up.


      March 10, 2012 at 4:57 am |
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