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. thePapist0000001

    The article is incorrect in that it states that the Church no longer believes he existed. CNN drops the ball again...

    March 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  2. Gregory

    This is one of the silliest wastes of time, money and effort I can imagine. If you like the guy then think about him, write you love him on your school text books, build a monument or two, pray to him, 45 years after his death, for his guidance and wisdom, THEN GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT INSTEAD! The world needs a lot of help right now. This organized crime syndicate is trivializing and offensive.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  3. carl

    It should be very easy to see that the catholics are a small part of the Lost sheep of the House of Israel (non Jews). If you believe this church can make a saint, then surely you can believe that man walked on the moon ?

    March 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  4. jzay

    Can you say constitution, shit and fuck here?

    March 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • momoya

      No, but you can.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  5. Joe Fattal

    A Catholic Saint is like a Picasso, you worth something after you dead.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    i hope the priests keep wearing robes from the middle ages. it makes them easy to spot. and a great rule for protecting your children, especially boys: "remember son, when you see a man dressed in a depressing 15th century robe, that's a child molester. don't go near him."

    March 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  7. jack leddy

    What could derail Fr Flanagan's canonization process? A celebate Irish Catholic priest constantly in the company of young teenaged boys.Does anyone see a possible problem?

    March 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Puckles

      It was his playground.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • John

      Id say he was rodding em good

      March 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • just sayin

      Filth sees filth wherever it goes. Father Flanagan contributed more to the well being of people in need than you with your smart mouth could ever hope to. You would rather find fault than help a person in need. Flanagan does more in death than you do in life.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  8. Puckles


    And we can believe what the Catholic Church tells us! LOL!!!! I am sure the "research" will be correct, with all the "cover-ups" this PEDOPHILE organization is famous for. LOL! You are such a sheep!!

    March 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  9. Jonathan B.

    "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils."

    St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John

    March 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  10. Chris

    "Why shouldn't the RCC be held as accountable as a school district?" Why should priest be automatically synonymous with abusers and coaches, teachers, pastors, rabbis, scout leaders, government officials etc etc not? Read just a little of the comments here. It's called bigotry.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • momoya

      Because when an organization covers up crime for their members who committed it, it shows their willingness to be judged according to their members actions.. If you help cover it up, you're guilty.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  11. Jonathan B.


    March 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  12. Puckles

    "Boy's Town"- a Catholic Priests playground. No saints – ALL SINNERS.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • dalis

      What ignorance! Do some research on it before you run your fingers.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  13. Ex Atheist

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things...

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate!

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator ††

    March 10, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Greg

      You really need professional help. Seriously, if you believe ANYTHING that you've posted here, you should be in an hospital.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Get Real

      Ex Atheist is obviously a "Poe", but I have seen every one of those comments posted by Christians on these forums (some quite a few times).

      March 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Nah

      Lol. Always love a good trolling attempt.

      Too bad the atheists on here really are too stupid to realize what you're doing.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Ichiban

      Please get help.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Robert

    Every time I went inside a Catholic church in Italy where they had one of those coin-activated candles, I couldn't help thinking of a prophecy written in the Book of Mormon:

    "Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins." Mormon 8:32

    March 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • dalis

      Uh, the candles aren't for that anyway, guy. Real candles make smoke that damages the interiors of the church. The purpose is simply a prayer, and the candle is a tangible sign and not at all required. It's not a difficult concept.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      for money. you forgot that part. instead of a button anyone can push, you have to give them money if you want your candle lit. nice!

      March 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  15. Connie

    I have been giving to the Omaha Boys Home for most of my adult life. I love this organization but, have never prayed to him Fr Flanagan for intercesson. I am Catholic, but not familar with requirements for SaintHood. All I can say is that I am a fan and hpe that this campaign at the very least brings more attneiton to this wonderful organization!

    March 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Puckles

      You knowingly support Pedophilia. You share in their sins.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Chris

      Knowingly support football? You share in Sanduski's sing.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      So I hope you feel good that they will spend $1,000,000 on this campaign, and WASTE every cent you ever gave them on this nonsense, instead of helping kids.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 10, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Greg

      An atheist with two hands on the plow accomplishes more than a christian with two hands clasped in prayer. Think about it.

      You want religious freedom, I want freedom from religion.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Vince

      Really Greg! Let's compare the contributions of Catholicism versus atheism and see whose field is larger and mire abundant

      March 10, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • just sayin

      President George H W Bush said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be considered a citizen. Working hands without a plan or inspiration are totally useless . Prayer provides inspiration, knowledge and plan.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Get Real

      @just sayin = a prime contributor to @Ex Atheist's list.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • just sayin

      Historical facts, deal with it.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Nah

      greg: "You want religious freedom, I want freedom from religion."

      Oh. How deep and profound and intelligent of you.

      You want freedom of religion, which means freedom "from" religion. So, paradoxically, a religious person has a right to practice his religion as he chooses, except if you don't like it. Then you have an absolute right to oppress his religious freedom and prevent him from worshipping in anyway you disagree with.

      You're not very smart, are you?

      March 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      yep, our disgusting ex-president said that. unbelievably bigoted.

      and who contributes more, atheists or christians? to what? misery? christians for sure. charity? atheists don't usually make charities in the name of atheism. they don't feel the need to name a hospital, the "St. Brainless". look up bill gates and warren buffet, 2 non-believers that have given more to charity individually than ANY christian on earth. fact. look it up. so now what?

      March 10, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      to Nah:

      what are you talking about? when did greg say anything about oppressing your religion. all he said was that he wants the freedom NOT to worship anyone? no one said you can't worship imaginary beings in the sky. you're putting words in his mouth. take a step back and re-read what he wrote. he wants the freedom not to worship just as you have the freedom to worship who you want. think before you post, please.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Kevin

      It takes far more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian and atheists will never have enough hands for the plow for their work will never be finished never be satisfied if you follow Jesus not people you can take your hands off your plow because His work was finished at the cross for your sake Greg.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  17. sargeanton

    The incredible ignorance of Catholicism (thinly veiled paganism) is appalling. The lowliest true Christian, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as as Savior and Redeemer, by faith alone, IS a saint according to the New Testament...a book that nearly all Catholics are comletely ignorant of. Read the opeing paragraphs of Romans, Cornthians, Ephesians, Collosians, et. al., and you'll perhaps notice they are ALL addressed to the SAINTS living there. They ARE saints...they don't get made saints because some pope likes their human works.

    March 10, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Vince

      And where do you suppose you got yourbible from? It is ignorant comments like this that prove non denominational churches should be taken down and exposed for the cheap imitations of the real thing! And to answer my own question.... The catholic church gave you your incomplete, misinterpreted, half translated version of the bible. And some person who is not qualified to teach it is probably using his own intertretAtion of it to teach you... I pray for your soul.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • dalis

      I always wonder why anti-Catholics are so derisive toward "paganism". Sounds rather judgmental if you ask me. Who died and made you the CDF?

      March 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Kevin

      You are correct if we are "in Christ" we then become a saint no amount of good deeds can make us a saint

      March 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  18. palintwit

    "Getting Rid of Teabaggers" or "Palintwit's Final Solution"

    1. Walmart advertises a sale in their gun, knife and ammo departments on a given day.
    2. Walmart promises a free autographed copy of Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster with every weapon sold.
    3. Walmart promises plenty of free parking for trailers.
    4. Hordes of baggers inundate Walmart. Birthers show up too.
    5. Nuke Walmart.
    6. Simple.

    This ruse is guaranteed to attract baggers like flies on sh!t. Nascar tracks work equally well if Walmart is not available.

    March 10, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. Chris

    "see that district get slammed by every news organization and human rights advocates on the globe.." What planet do you live on?

    March 10, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • momoya

      Exactly, Chris..

      You don't mind living on a planet where the largest church organization molests small children, covers it up, and gets away withit.. It say's as much about you as your church.

      March 10, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Ok Momo. Give some statistics on the percentage of priest let alone accused of such to the total number of Priest.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  20. Isaac

    It is sad to see how the person that wrote this article twists the truth and is either anti catholic or ignorant. First of all, it is not true that St. Christopher was removed because he was a fictional character. He is indeed still a Saint and he did exist and was martyred in the third century under emperor Decius. He was removed because the pope did not believe he should be celebrated in the General Roman calendar. Second, the catholic church has always had the requirement of miracles to become a saint since this is a sign from God. Read Mark 9:1 The Lord Jesus used miracles sometimes to silence the Pharisees. It is not true that if enough people prayed to you, you were declared saint.
    Finally, there are plenty of saints that became saints without any lawyers. Padre Pio, St. Faustina, Saint Francis, and thousands of others. This hiring of lawyers is a brainwashing of modern times. It seems that father Flanagan was a righteous man (the Lord Jesus always said that every tree is known by its fruit). It can be seen by the testimony of many that father Flanagan bore good fruit and may rest in the presence of God. However, God will make a saint of him in due time. Maybe this is a test to the archbishop and he is not proving to be patient and rely on God alone.
    Well said Josh and God bless!

    March 10, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Vince

      Well said... Thank you for that educated response

      March 10, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Get Real

      The #1 requirement to be a Saint (with a capital "s") is to be a Catholic.

      (other than the real old-timers who were grandfathered in)

      March 10, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • sargeanton

      You could not be more wrong. Did you know that Satan can perform miracles - and does - such as impersonating Mary in places like Lourdes and Gaudalupe to get ignorant catholics to start venerating her, who can do nothing for them, instead of the Lord Jesus Christ, WHo can do ALL things? I feel sorry for all the duped Catholics in the world. Open a Bible, for crying out oud, and get the TRUTH.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Motar

      "For crying out loud" is a veiled form of "For Christ's sake"' a minced oath, sargeanton.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • thePapist0000001

      I guess Gabriel was duped too when he announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus when he said "Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women." But hey hes just an angel what does he know. Also I missed the part where Satan pretends to be Mary in the Bible. For a protestant you sure take liberality with the scripture. Just saying.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      "Gabriel was duped".... hahahaha. You actually believe that crap, about a wingy thingy flying in through a window, and ...never mind. What a waste. Speaking of duped.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
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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.