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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. civic

    herecy. jesus is the only lord

    March 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • dalis

      Who is calling Fr. Flanagan lord?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  2. The Bible

    There are too many agents in this holy Church nowadays unfortunately ...

    March 10, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  3. Raidan Soma

    Sainthood: Because the innumerable cures produced and explained by medical science don’t compare to the few unexplained cures that just so happen to save believers and non-believers alike?! (See definition: luck)

    March 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Oh, leave out how many animals were used in the testing stages, not to mention all the other avenues of failures until something stuck.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • momoya

      So, Heaven Sent, you don't go to hospitals when you get hurt or sick?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  4. GodsPeople

    Whether or not this individual deserves sainthood is up to the Vatican really. Does he meet the requirements? Mother Theresa was canonized fairly quickly and with little to no fuss.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • I Don't Get It

      And you care about this because....?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      You mean up to the old men in red dresses inside the Vatican. There is no "Vatican". There are ONLY human beings who work there.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      I care about anything that's faith based, especially since I went from the RCC to the Antiochian Orthodox, I still have a strong love for the Catholic Church.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Of course there's only human beings who work there. Who said otherwise?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      I care about anything that's faith based, and voodoo is faith based. So is Jim Jones special kool-aid ceremony. And slamming airliners into buildings – definitely faith based. Crusades, burning witches and heretics, suicide bombings, inquisitions, theocracies, religious war and oppression, sharia executions . . . all faith based, so I love them.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • dalis

      Mother Teresa was beatified, not canonized.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • GodsPeople

      Of course I didn't post that Sharia law garbage, that was Godpot again pretending to be me. So childish, just like an atheist.

      March 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  5. just sayin'

    The picture looks like a revenge ambush by abuse victims who a lulling the perv priest into complacency by asking about the best lubricants, before the guy behind garrotes him.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  6. thePapist0000001

    Atheism is a lie, to disobey the Church is to disobey God, repent...and believe the in the Gospel.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • momoya

      Atheism can't be a lie since it doesn't claim anything.. Atheism is a nonbelief, like not believing in Santa or unicorns..

      Do you really believe that god had to sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself by exploiting a loophole in a plan he made himself that got screwed up because a rib-woman got tricked into eating an apple by a talking snake because she couldn't know what good and evil was before eating of the fruit that provided knowledge of good and evil?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Visitor from Andromeda

      Thank you your eminence. Yes indeed. If you have a brain, (given to you by that god), and that brain tells you there is no god, lie to that god, and lie to yourself, and lie to everyone. Better to be a hypocrite, and *say* you believe, even if you really don't. Yes indeed.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • information

      If there is a god I have several suggestions for him/her/it. With all the power he/she/it supposedly has, he/she/it could come up with something better than p00ping. It is really gross and with just a snap of his/her/ it's finger could be replaced by exhale of gases when we breathe.
      And this burning people forever. Sounds like some serious abandonment issues from all those forever’s alone before he made man/woman. Once he/she/it creates something he/she/it can not get rid of it. Even when he/she/it is very angry.
      Some short term therapy could work thru this easily. In grade 4, 1958 my 4th grade nun told me god controlled the population by wars and famine. I have a few better ideas for god there
      So if he is as tolerant as he is billed then before he sends me to hell forever I can get him to implement some changes that will benefit future peeps.

      March 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. Bryon

    The Catholic church road to Sainthood is not Biblical. One could even argue it is anti-Biblical. The saints are those gave by Christ through grace.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  8. Mike

    The road to "Sainthood" is paved with many young boys rubbing their backsides after they've been given wine and them praying for someone to grab a two by four to pry a priest from their rear-end.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  9. God doesn't like religion

    Miracles are subjective. Your miracle is my coincidence. 1 million dollars could be better spent on the poor, that WOULD BE a miracle.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Richie

    I live in Omaha, Nebraska. I am 20 years old. I feel more mature then all of you. Why comment negative comments for someone you do not know. No matter what your religious beliefs are. Don't use the protection of your computer screen to allow you to parade your negative thoughts. This article is for people to comment. Not to disrespect a article that you may not agree with. This is why I do not like the World Wide Web. Use the Web to gain information, not be simply put, Mean.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Mirror time, richie

      Wow Richie, you are only 20 and yet you have already achieved an impressive level of smug condescending self-righteousness! Congratulations! And you are really good at telling other people how to behave! Bravo! You would make an excellent Christian.

      And I am sure you are not a Catholic with a hidden agenda of berating those who disagree, are you?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Whatever

      Negative comments about negative comments. Irony? Hypocrisy?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • momoya

      So what does that make ne.gative comments about ne.gative comments about ne.gative comments?

      Sm.ug att.itudes are sinful..

      March 10, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Dennis Miller

      Richie: Sorry for the above two responses. Keep your chin up. And stay away from CNN. Fr. Barron has a great video on youtube about how there are an inordinate number of atheists who come to CNN to comment. You can hear the hopelessness of life without God in each of their comments.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      You have magic ears if you can hear that, Dennis. I guess if you have an imaginary friend ruling your life, you can also hear imaginary dispair in those who don't agree with you. You can also imagine they get tortured eternally for disagreeing with you, too.

      All you have to do is use your imagination.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • just sayin

      Last post courtesy of Tom,Tom the Pipers son, known liar and thief.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • captain america

      Tom tom is stealing my names again. I pray that he doesn't, but it doesn't work, even though prayer works, proven. It annoys me when they take my precious Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things and use it for their own nefarious schemes.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  11. Luke Emery

    I live in Omaha and I think it is pretty cool. I am an atheist though, so it doesn't particularly matter to me other than the fact that it is about the city I love and a rather significant part of history for the region. I think Boys Town was a very good thing for Omaha and troubled teens, so I would support making him a saint even if I don't believe in it.

    By the way, Boys Town is basically in Omaha. Those who aren't familiar, Omaha basically swallows every town that is around it. And technically it is now named "Boys and Girls Town" (but almost no one calls it that, it was controversial).

    March 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      "Boys And Girls Town" is controversial? Really? Just ho repressed is Omaha?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • just sayin

      Tom, tom the Pipers Son is stealing names on an anonymous blog. How lame is that?

      March 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • dalis

      Not repressed, just sentimental for the old name. (also from Omaha)

      March 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      just lying, when you posted your accusation, I was taking a nap. I just got home from dinner out with a friend.

      March 10, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  12. Ear Elephant

    As has been mentioned, the number one requirement to be considered for Sainthood is to be Catholic.

    Gandhi will never be considered, nor will Jonas Salk, or Bill Gates/Warren Buffet, no matter what their humanitarian contributions were.

    Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn will never be considered, no matter how many "miracles" they performed.

    Magic surgeons from the Philippines or from the Brazilian jungle, however, IF Catholic, will stand a chance.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Luke Emery

      So? Why is the Catholic church obligated to make Ghandi a Catholic saint? If I was made a Catholic Saint after I died, I would be offended if I could be.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  13. LouAz

    I knew it ! You can buy your way into Heaven in the Catholic Church. This and more brought to you by men in dresses !

    March 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • dalis

      This has nothing to do with getting to heaven. It's about recognition, intercession and emulation. Read more, judge less.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Every story here is a new reason to reject religion

      You are absolutely right, dalis. Let me correcg that for you and lou: You can buy your way into recognition, intercession and emulation in the Catholic Church, but it costs $1,000,000. No word on how much heaven costs.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  14. ropeadope

    If it wasn't so sick, it would be a laugh!

    March 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  15. ropeadope

    Religion is like a drug addiction. A reality altering brainwashing. No wonder people don't want to quit, despite all the negativity associated with religion, not the least one of which is the fact that it's completely absurd.

    March 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  16. Surprisingly Expensive

    It's the Catholic Church. They want money for made up crap. How is that surprising?

    March 10, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  17. Every story here is a new reason to reject religion

    Some simple math points at an ugly reality:

    "To be recognized as a saint these days, it may cost upwards of $1 million.”

    "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."

    At $1,000,000 per, the expenditure for sainthood is $430,000,000, of which $30,000,000 is right now. Which isn't going to charity but to buy title promotions for a dead people, and that's just one lawyer.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • ropeadope

      The lawyer is probably an atheist, which is a good thing.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Every story here is a new reason to reject religion

      ropeadope, you are onto a good thing: selling imaginary sainthood to to dead people at $1,000,000 a crack is just the tip of the iceberg! Think of all the imaginary stuff you can sell them! You can sell them pardons for their dubious behavior last weekend at reasonable prices, so that they still get into heaven!

      Wait, the Catholic Church did that for centuries.

      Uh, let's see . . . I've got it! Let's make them give a percentage of their income to us by telling them they won't get into heaven if they don't!

      Wait, the Mormons and the Baptists and the Muslims already do that.

      Let's have TV shows that ask for money and . . . no, that's been taken too.

      Soak them for a donations every time you get together to talk about God . . . they already do that.

      Damn, those religious people have all the money angles covered! No wonder they call them their flock – they fleece them regularly!

      March 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      By the way, Jesus returned last year. He lives in Tampa and drives a Buick.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Surprisingly Expensive

      Tampa? Is he lost?

      March 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Jesus has returned, and he is ready to pick fruit!

      Jesus prayed that he would make it across the border again, and it worked! That and $1,500 to an immigrant smuggler.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • ropeadope

      My lawn needs some trimming.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • just sayin

      To those of limited intelligence i.e. atheists, there is a pathetic impersonator on these blogs that is so bad off that they resort to stealing a name on an anonymous blog.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • David Stone

      It does affect the mind of the person praying, but so does watching TV or reading a book or eating dinner..

      March 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • captain america

      I hate it when they steal one of my names like that

      They must be canadian pigfuckers

      March 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • just sayin

      The most known name thief on these blogs is Tom, Tom the Pipers Son.

      March 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  19. DK

    The catholic church should be more worried about kicking out the perverted priests instead of making saints.
    As a person raised catholic, but turned off by the evil – I don't see how any saints have come out of this church in the last 100 years.

    March 10, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • dalis

      Maximilian Kolbe? Edith Stein? I also like Gianna Beretta Molla, Mother Teresa and Fr. Mychal Judge.

      March 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  20. Ridunculous

    @thePapist0000001 vs @sargeanton – dueling fantasy beings. This is gonna be a hoot!

    March 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
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