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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. Veronica

    The catholic church is the biggest form of organized crime there ever was and ever will be. Imagine all the money ever fleeced from parishoners and laundered through it's existence. Which lined their pockets, their drink cabinets, their expensive silky dresses, their gold idols, and supported their gambling. Imagine the money spent on their lawyers that defended them against the atrocities that they performed on innocent children.

    Now imagine that money spent on poverty, hunger, illness. Who could still attend mass every week, some every day, and continue to support the biggest scam in world history? WHO??

    March 10, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • ropeadope

      I agree 100%. Religion has always been nothing but a scam for thousands of years. No fear of prosecution, and now their profit is tax free!

      March 10, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • momoya

      In a better world, we'd disband such a horrible organization and charge its leaders with the crimes they've committed..

      March 10, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  2. DeeCee1000

    I'm just glad I'm no longer a member of that cult. I feel more sorry for them than anything else, especially the women. The poor things are brainwashed into believing they are too evil to even set foot in the sanctuary or become priests. It's no wonder the Catholic Church is now desperately short of priests. Most of the priests they have are old and no one else wants to join. Good luck on that!

    March 10, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  3. Truth

    If Edward Flanagan was born again by his confession of faith, "ALONE" in Jesus Christ as his Saviour, he became a Saint of God the day he confessed Jesus Christ. You can not EARN salvation. We are made Saints of God by our confession of Christ because we bear HIS righteousness NOT OURS!!!!!! No board on earth can make ANYONE a Saint. The Roman Catholic Church DOES NOT AUTHORIZE ANYONE to be Saints. Only Jesus Christ grants this by our confession of faith in him.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Motar

      You speak the truth, Truth.

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

      They have more authority than some anonymous guy on the net. I'll take their word over yours.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Truth

      @Mark, they have NO AUTHORITY...NONE, to determine this. Jesus said "ALL Power has been given to ME in Heaven AND in Earth. It's very simple, Faith in the ONE who has ALL Authority to determine your entrance into Heaven, NOT the Pope.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  4. Chris

    George Lucas senses that the force is strong with this one.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  5. Pink bunnies

    I am proud of the work Fr. Flannigan did in his life. All this scepticism is what is dividing this country. I think that everyone should stop applying poloitics and admit that he did something great for lots of people. If his Religion wants to celebrate him than others should allow it. If you don't understand Catholiscism that doesn't mean you should insult and degrade great things people have done for others....

    March 10, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Truth

      "Catholiscism" will not get you into Heaven. Jesus said "You must be born again".

      March 10, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Motar

      Your faith is true, Truth.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • babaelf

      It's spelt FLANAGAN not Flannigan

      March 10, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      It's not "spelt" anything. It might be "spelled". And that isn't her only problem with English.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • ddrew78

      Truth, please tell me which version of the bible you're reading, because I don't recall reading anywhere that you have to be born again.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  6. BL

    It's a complete fantasy. There's no such thing as "saints," unless they play in New Orleans.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Motar

      Saints? Are you referring to the professional sports organization with the bounty program that paid players to intentionally injure targeted opponents?

      March 10, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  7. Glades2

    I'm tempted not to post comments here for all the blaspheming that happens when it concerns topics of Christianity, but to Ken I wanted to try to answer his question as best as I can...

    Saints, in the Church definition, are people like yourself and myself, who lived everyday lives but strived to rise above our normal human emotions to do great things – in the modern world, people like Ryan White, Rachel Scott and many others like them are good examples of everyday people who lived an average life by our standards but ended up influencing millions...

    About 10 years ago, the late Pope John Paul II did elevate a large group of American non-Catholic Christians to a high place in the Church – while not saints outright, they are all considered people who lived Christ-like lives and like Rachel Scott went to their deaths professing their love for God, because on the cross Jesus told the Good Thief that "Today you will be with Me in Paradise", so it is understood that the same is true for these many others who tried their best to live their live above what the secular world expects or even demands...

    Rachel Scott's death helped to bring the "one person can make a difference" way of thinking to millions of teens around the world, and in the end, that is what God desires of every one of us – it'd be sad if at the end of our life all we can tell God (for as the Bible says we will all have to account for our life to God once it ends) is that we just lived a couch potatoe life for years and did nothing but watched television for hours on end each day and critized the world on the Internet, while doing nothing to make a good difference...

    In the past year 2 local gang members died in "tagging" accidents on local highways, and what did they tell God – that they died valdalizing public property because that's what they did with their life every night?

    In the end the examples of Ryan (as in the Ryan White Care Bill) and Rachel are what being a Saint is all about – Ryan and Rachel chose the difficult narrow road to sainthood, while the other group continued to live their own selfish way and died for it and their fate is known only to God...

    Glades2

    March 10, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Wanumba

      The Rachael Scott dying words story is a myth, or so says the kid who was with her when she was shot and so says the FBI. Her loss was tragic and I pray for her family, but telling lies about her final minutes on earth does no one any good.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Motar

      Biblically speaking, all genuine Christians are saints. Christ-like conduct, "both small and great" (Rev. 11:18 NIV) is evidence of sainthood.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  8. Plug1

    Their, happy as a F*gget in " BOYS TOWN!!!

    March 10, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  9. ropeadope

    Disgusting! It will take more than a million and a 100 years to get rid of religion entirely!

    March 10, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  10. ELH

    "Saints alive!" "My mother is a saint." "Saint Paul (MN)" "Saint Louis (MO)" "The Saints Come Marching In." "The NOLA Saints ne Bounty Hunters."

    So, we have a common, somewhat archaic exclamation, a phrase of praise, two cities, a song and a bunch of thugs. Dilutes the meaning of the word a bit, don't you think?

    March 10, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  11. Will

    Funny how southern teabagger inbred uneducated morons talk about gay marriage like its satanic, but at the same time spend half their time sodomizing baby barnyard animals/blood relatives/underaged neighbors. Their JAY-zhuss is cool with bonking your sister/adolescent goats apparently.

    March 10, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      atheist, I presume? Certainly ignorant about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches such as tolerance and forgiveness. Judge the Church by what it teaches instead of what some misguided "Catholic" wanna-be's do.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • momoya

      No, you don't get that option.. Not any more.. If any school system had a tenth of the child abuse the RC allows, there'd be rioting in the streets calling for an overhaul of the entire organization.. The RCC HELPS child abusers escape from detection and law enforcement.. Not only is church hierarchy complicit, but every single member of the Catholic Church!. How dare its members continue to support such an organization.. How dare they?!?. Just because the RCC and the pope and all his thugs think and act as if they are above the law doesn't mean its members should make excuses and continue their allegiance.. Absolutely disgusting behavior!. We would accept it from no organization anywhere–but somehow the church gets away with it.. Sickening.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      We do judge it properly...it is a cult of pedo.philes that should be disbanded and every one accused should be forced to stand trial and be prosecuted. The pope would be on the top of that list since he condones the actions of those serving under him.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  12. The Dude

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eqKb5ViN_Q

    March 10, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  13. The Dude

    So how many of those boys did he corn hole?

    March 10, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      As many as you did.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      no worries SouthernCelt supports the group and is just as bad for doing so!

      March 10, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  14. Ken

    I don't understand Sainthood process and the need to have Saints and praying to them instead of God or Jesus. After reading this article I understand it even less considering a Million dollars could be spent in the pursuit of having Sainthood granted to a person. How many hungry people could be fed, poor people clothed and illnesses cured with a Million dollars? Isn't that what Jesus had rather have that money spent on? I believe this is one of the many ways the Catholic Church strayed from the core message Jesus brought to us.

    March 10, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • josh

      Ken – I think you confusing a couple of things. 1) you do not have to spend a million dollars to become a saint. This is their decision and remember they can spend billions of dollars, but to be canonized a saint in the Catholic Church, you need evidence of 2 supernatural miracles. I'm assuming you are a Christian and that means that our God is not a God of the dead. As Christians that follow Jesus's commandments we do not die. Death is for those that go to Hell. In Revelation 5 6:9 you see the saints in Heaven offering Jesus (Slain Lamb) prayers. Why are those in Heaven praying? The reality is that they are praying for us, because we are One body. They want us to know and experience Heaven. The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ to carry His message to the nations and is protected by God. The Catholic Church protected and compiled the books of the Bible. You would not even have the Bible if it wasn't for the Catholic Church. God Bless in always seek the Truth. Christ and His Church are Truth.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • dalis

      I can tell you as a Catholic that it isn't doctrinally correct in Catholicism to pray to a saint at all, but we do pray for their intercession. Sounds like splitting hairs, I know, but let's put it this way. I might ask you to pray for me. Why should I stop asking when you've died? See? And yes, a million dollars is a ridiculous amount of money. I bet I know what Fr. Flanagan would have done with it.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Don't depend on Internet resources for your education. Quality can't be guaranteed in this medium. Saints live lives worthy of emulating, a.k.a, as Jesus would want, but even that is not enough to be called Saint. They have to be chosen by God to deliver a Supernatural occurrence which is unexplained by science. not once, but at least twice. This process has come about to prevent all the fakes claiming to be saints and prevent the ridicule from the non-believers detracting from the message of the Gospel.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Motar

      I would be interested in looking at the Scripture(s) ascribing supernatural occurrences to saints. Would someone please help me to find those Biblical references.

      March 10, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • ddrew78

      Ken, easiest way I found to explain it is this: If you want something done in your town or city, you go and ask the mayor. And maybe you get it, maybe you don't. However, if your friend goes to play golf with the mayor on a regular basis, of course you would ask him to put in a good word for you. Same thing with the Saints. We don't pray to them, we ask them to pray for us, since they have the inside track to God.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  15. Aezel

    The most hilarious part is that they require you to do two miracles after you die. So in their mind, you die, you go to heaven, God makes you a saint but NOPE, not good enough for the Catholic Church, you have to do some magic mojo for them to prove it.

    What a joke. It was fairy tale cult nonsense when it started in the Bronze Age, and it is still fairy tale cult nonsense.

    March 10, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • The Dude

      The only people who believe their tenants completely anymore are latino trash from 3rd world countries, the elderly who are scared of death and Africans who have been brainwashed.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • dalis

      The word is "tenets", you racist.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Two miracles are required because of people like you. Even if you don't believe, the virtues of the Saints are worth copying. Living a truly Christian life can be exceedingly difficult (Thank God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession) and the Saints prove ordinary people can live extraordinary lives.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • just sayin

      Edward Flanagan was a remarkable human being that went above and beyond in his calling to serve the Lord. no need to debate his faith or his church, he served his fellowman by serving a needy youth. When you are equally as employed in reaching a human need then you will earn the right to judge father Flanagan, not before.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 10, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • mendacitysux

      Prayer and a million dollars changes more

      March 10, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Prayer and a million dollars? Did you forget that the love of money is the root of all evil?

      March 10, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  17. Mark

    People: "We'd like to make this guy a saint!"
    God: "Okay, well, hold some votes, collect signatures, and file the forms and get back to me."
    People: "Okay, we have that stuff!"
    God: "Super, that's terrific. I'll let him know and see if he'll get some miracles worked up. He's busy chatting it up with Jesus and Buddha right now, and has harp lessons later, though. So it might take 60 years because, well, time is different here. Haha! Anyhoo, just hang on."
    People: "Oh... okay. LOOK! The plant on his window sill that was dead for years is alive again! It's a miracle!"
    God: "Come off it. I saw you switch it with a new one."
    People: "Right. Sorry."

    March 10, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • ATHEIST

      LMFAO 😉

      March 10, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Tell you what, go to Lourdes, France, see the Grotto, read or hear about the stories and see if that changes your mind. Miracles do happen and by necessity can't be explained by Science.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • HotAirAce

      How many severed limbs have ever been restored? Zero!!

      March 10, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  18. Alert Citizen

    Why are we fighting on this again? Let everyone pray whoever they want or not pray! Is our IQ dropped below 50 or something?

    March 10, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Aezel

      Nobody is trying to stop anyone from doing anything. I however, reserve my right to make fun of stupidity, just like they have the right to commit it in the first place.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Because people feel free to vent their spleens in total anonymity. A lack of manners is common to this medium

      March 10, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  19. leif

    I think its funny that they removed st. christopher off the sainthood calendar because they couldn't prove that he ever existed. Shouldn't they do that for god and jesus too?

    March 10, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • dalis

      Jesus is acknowledged to have existed by historians because he is mentioned in non-biblical texts. Read Josephus.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • sybaris

      dalis, which Jesus?

      March 10, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  20. bobhope

    You have to molest a thousand boys to become a saint. Its in the Catholic Priest handbook page 139 .

    March 10, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Gubernova

      Try harder next time to be clever.

      March 10, 2012 at 10:20 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.