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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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  2. Visitor from Andromeda

    That nun in France who was supposedly "cured" by the intercession of JohnPaul II has relapsed. Woops.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/05/nun-cured-pope-parkinsons-ill

    March 10, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  3. barbara

    It seems to me that the only people who care about sainthood are people who are still alive. The person up for canonization could care less.... they're dead!

    March 10, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  4. TownC

    I am not a Catholic, so I don't mind what they do. However, I respect their beliefs so if they want to raise someone to sainthood that is their business. Father Flannagan apparently was a great man who had the vision to see these boys not for who they were but for who they could be. This is a great lesson we all could learn from.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  5. Larry A

    Unless one is an alumn of Boys Town you don't know the positive impact Fr Flanagan had in changing the lives of thousands who otherwise one doesn't know what would have happened to us. I am a proud alum of Boys Town and strongly support the effort being made on his behalf.....there are thousands of miracles across the country thanks to him!!!!

    March 10, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      a million $ and a good lawyer .. the resources can be better used

      March 10, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  6. Roy

    Funny how CNN doesn't post daily attacks on Islam during Ramadhan

    March 10, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Keith

      Now why would the crescent news network do that?

      March 10, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • JT

      Yeah...I'd be embarassed too if a news organization posted the absurdity of my cult and beliefs for all to see.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Will

      How is this article an "attack" on Christianity you animal sodomizing uneducated evangelical southern inbred?

      March 10, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  7. scot pederson

    Once again, the Catholics show how they've twisted and perverted the Bible. ALL christian believers are Saints. The word is used throughout the Bible several times.

    But, most Catholics I've met who left the Catholic church have told me they never carried a Bible, never were encouraged to bring one or read it and all the sermons were just homilies or commentary on life without going to the Bible to explain what the scriptures say.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • dalis

      I'm Catholic and I read the Bible. Your friends are probably ex-Catholics because they were poorly catechized. It's unfortunate.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Isaac

      Scot, I can see how ignorant you and your friends are! I am catholic and I am fed three long Biblical readings in every Mass. In addition to a homily based from the read scriptures. I can see how your friends are ex-catholic. Aparently they were never catholic anyways. The only ex-catholics are those lukewarm who never cared for religion to begin with.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  8. jim

    Colin and Tom, get a room!!!

    March 10, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • JT

      I bet their priests taught them all kinds of tricks they could do with each other.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  9. jim

    The censor of this comment section is an @s$wipe!!!

    March 10, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      How typical.
      #1 There IS no censor. It' a computer program. Do you actually think someone sits at CNN and reads this nonsense ?
      #2 You can say whatever you want.
      #3 Obviously, it's the proof of Intelligent Design.
      #4 There are treatments available for Paranoia.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • JT

      No, you can't say anything you want. Someone used to post a list of forbidden letter combonations. One combo that is apparently so vile you can't put them together is the 3 letter combo t-i-t as in consti-tution.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      Bullshit. You CAN say whatever the fuck you want. Tit tit tit tit tit tit tit tit tit tit.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Roy

      Back to the video games JT

      March 10, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      Okay, here's the list:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ---
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-ntthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      nip-ple
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      que-er
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sl-ut
      sn-atch
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-oon
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      strip-per
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      wt-f....also!!!!!!!

      March 10, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  10. marty

    So a bunch of old geezers apply an adjective to a dead person. Who cares ? Not any thinking person.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • just sayin

      If you accomplish 1/10 th of what Father Flanagan accomplished in his life you would be considered a great man. As it is now you appear as a shallow little weasel, more anxious to throw stones than make any positive contribution to this world.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  11. Reality

    Money wasted as the "vomit-inducing" ped-ophilia and coverup will simply hasten the decline of all religions as they finally go extinct from their own absurdity.. It is time to replace all religions with a few rules like "Do No Harm" and convert all houses of "worthless worship" to recreation facilities and parks.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • .....

      hit report abuse to vomit inducing reality posts

      March 10, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Rob

      You are a bigot if you think:
      All Muslims are terrorists
      All African Americans are criminals
      Therefore you are a bigot if you think:
      All Priest are pedophiles.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Reality

      Why did today's pope, prelates, preachers and rabbis, so focused on society's se-xual sins, lose sight of clerical se-xual sins?
      "
      FEAR, SHAME and GUILT and COVER IT ALL UP!!!

      Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!

      Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.

      Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.

      Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy "I did not have se-x with that girl" Clinton, John "Marilyn Monroe" Kennedy"

      Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger "I am so sorry for getting caught" Woods.

      Neither is being an atheist or pagan since pedophilia is present in all walks of life.

      If someone is guilty of a crime in this litany of "neithers" they should or should have been penalized as the law dictates to include jail terms for pedophiliacs (priests, rabbis, evangelicals, boy scout leaders, married men/women), divorce for adultery (Clinton, Kennedy, Woods), jail terms for obstruction of justice (Clinton, Cardinal Law) and the death penalty or life in prison for murder ("Kings David and Henry VIII).

      March 10, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  12. Dave in FL

    Father Flanigan must be rolling over in his grave. A million bucks for his sainthood that instead could be spent on at risk kids. Archbishop George Lucas – George Lucas? I don't make this stuff up! – really needs to reevaluate his priorities.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Misschameleon

      Agree 100% with your Dave. The good father would shutter to think all that money and fuss was over him. I am sure his wish would be to spend the money much wiser on the kids.The intention was good hearted but on a practicle basis it just doesnt work.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  13. Tom

    God bless the Catholic church.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Colin

      Well said!!!

      March 10, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • JT

      God, protect the innocent children from this pedophile infested cult.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      Why does the CC require a blessing ?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. David X

    If you pray to a person who is dead and someone gets cured because of it, the dead person is not a saint – he is a DOCTOR.

    March 10, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      Perhaps. The fact that "a" follows "b", does not prove "a" was the cause of "b".

      March 10, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  15. JD

    Praying to anyone outside of the Trinity is nowhere in the Bible. In fact, prayer should look similar to the Lord's prayer. It's a great model. Nowhere in there does one pray to another human being. Then again, the Bible doesn't teach that the priest is an intercessor either. That would be one of Jesus' role.

    Catholics, read your Bibles!

    March 10, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Tom

      Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Colin

      First, did you know that the Bible is a book that was ratified by the Catholic Church? And secondly there are proofs for the intercession of Saints in the Bible.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Chris

      Have you ever asked anyone to pray for you? Since "God is the God of the living, not the dead" – Luke 20:38 Why is asking the saints any different?

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

      Actually the Trinity is idolatry. Te Fourth Lateran Council declared, "it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds". All those concepts require "time", as someone else here is always reminding us. If that is true, then the Trinity cannot be the creator of the dimensions in which these things happen. "While distinct in their relations with one another, they are one in all else. The whole work of creation and grace is a single OPERATION common to all three divine persons, who at the same time operate according to their unique properties, so that all things are from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit."
      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' view that the Godhead is a council of three deities, perfectly united in purpose and will, but nevertheless separate and distinct individuals, therefore is heretical, and non biblical. Actually, the Trinity is non-biblical.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Isaac

      It is funny that JD says to read the bible and does not even know that God gave us the bible to read through the Catholic church. How do you know the bible is inspired by God? Does the bible say somewhere that Mark or Luke are inspired by God? The church has never taught that a pope or any person is infallible but when the church meets as a counsel to seek the guidance from the Holy Spirit, it is infallible. If you do not believe this then you should not even bother to read the Bible because this is how the Bible was put together by the catholic church.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      The bible was not "put together" by the Catholic Church. It was written by many various writers, and editors, and re-written MANY times, and finally VOTED on, non-unanimously, I might add. What you have now is a book, "cobbled" together. If you think THAT is "inspiration"... there is no hope for you.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  16. KM

    There is no such thing as sainthood.
    There is no such thing as divinity.
    There is no such thing as the Catholic Church's authority.

    St. Valentine can't be confirmed to have existed according to any particular tradition either. They took him off the "roster" but idiots world-wide still prop up a manufactured holiday to him too!

    March 10, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Colin

      There is such a thing as Sainthood. I have personal experience with intercessions of Saints.
      There is such a thing as divinity. Not only are there logical proofs for God's existence (that, I might add, are eminently more reasonable than so-called proofs to show otherwise!) but I also have personal experience of God's existence.
      There is such a thing as the Catholic Church's authority, and this is Christ himself.

      Hopefully you can be a bit more open-minded in your quest for the truth, and hopefully you can find it.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Stephen

      Colin, I have personal experience with Leprechauns but no one believes me. I don' know why.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • jim

      Stephen, Colin is far too delusional even to understand the significance of your statement.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      Colin, we noticed you failed to provide even one of the so-called "proofs". ALL of them are easily refutable. There was no such thing as "church" when Yeshua bar Josef was alive. Therefore stating he is the "authority" of your church is ludicrous.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  17. Gumby

    From the article:

    "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.”

    What a waste of money that could be used to feed the poor. Religion is a self-serving fraud. Nothing but big business that sucks money out of peoples' wallets by offering grandiose promises they never have to deliver on. Disgusting and immoral.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • jim

      Disgusting and immoral! I think you have captured the true essence of the Catholic church.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  18. Buddy Kowalski

    Sound like you need a Hollywood agent now if you want to become a saint. May I suggest a good Jewish one?

    March 10, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  19. Enough with the negative vibes

    You are using the good efforts of the people of Omaha to promote your anti-Catholic bias.

    A year and a half ago Brother André Bessette of Montreal, Stanislaus Soltys of Poland, Italians Giulia Salzano and Battista Camilla da Varano, and Candida Maria de Jesus Cipitria y Barriola of Spain were canonized by Pope Benedict. Good luck finding an expensive multi-media campaigns, politicking, and bribery in their cases. It didn’t happen. This article is just a vehicle for CNN and some of its readers voice their anti-Catholic views.

    March 10, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Colin

      Agreed!

      March 10, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Tom

      Absolutely right. CNN is a dependable source of attack on the Catholic church, and it happens daily.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Waiting

      Did folks read the same article I did?

      March 10, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  20. pacman357

    Ah yes...I recall my first year of law school fondly. Finally, after 17 years of schooling, I got to study what really interested me...criminal law, civil procedures, contracts, sainthood, torts, wait, what?

    March 10, 2012 at 7:40 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.