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Father Flanagan sainthood cause advances

A priest who revolutionized how orphaned and disadvantaged youth are cared for, while facing opposition and even death threats, is one step closer to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

The sainthood cause of Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan took a major step forward July 22 as a Vatican official presented a “Positio” along with a letter of support from Archbishop George J. Lucas to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Positio is a 400-page summary of the 15,000 pages of documents forwarded to the Vatican in 2015 by the Archdiocese of Omaha. It argues that Father Flanagan, founder of Boys Town in Omaha, led a life of heroic virtue and is worthy of being declared venerable by the pope. It also is a statement of support that investigation of his cause should proceed.

In January, Archbishop Lucas met with Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to personally endorse this step towards the eventual beatification and canonization of Father Flanagan.

“It has been a privilege to offer my support for the cause of Father Edward Flanagan at each stage of this process,” Archbishop Lucas said. “I was able to share with Cardinal Becciu the encouragement offered to all of us in the church during this challenging time by the virtuous life and work of Father Flanagan.”

Prominent in promoting his cause for sainthood is The Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion, which has supporters in 20 countries and over 40,000 worldwide followers on Facebook.

“On behalf of the League, we thank Archbishop Lucas for making this personal commitment to launch the review of the Positio,” said Steven Wolf, president of the Father Flanagan League. “The Archbishop’s visit to the Vatican speaks volumes to the importance of this cause for the Catholic Church.”

Advancement of the cause requires approval of the Positio by the historical consultants of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, then by the theological consultants, and finally by the bishops and cardinals who are members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. 

If approved, the Congregation would then make a recommendation to Pope Francis that Father Flanagan exhibited heroic virtue and should be declared venerable.

HEROIC VIRTUE

“The word heroic usually means someone has exposed themselves to danger, discomfort or threats of harm … putting themselves aside to advance the needs of somebody else,” Wolf said. Father Flanagan’s life was full of examples of such behaviors, he said.

During Boys Town’s early days, Father Flanagan’s efforts to help boys of different races and religions in an integrated setting drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. “They threatened to kill him and burn Boys Town to the ground,” Wolf said.

In 1946, Father Flanagan returned to his native Ireland and took on the establishment there to eliminate the state-run industrial schools for orphaned and homeless children that were fraught with abuse, corporal punishment and forced labor.

“The establishment in Ireland tried to completely dismantle his character publicly and make him persona non grata,” Wolf said. But despite opposition, he took a leave of absence from Boys Town and committed himself to shutting down the schools. Although his efforts were unsuccessful at the time, many schools eventually closed and investigations into the abuses were launched decades later.

President Harry S. Truman also asked Father Flanagan to help establish youth care systems for war orphans in the Pacific Rim and Europe following World War II. It was during this work that Father Flanagan died in Germany in 1948.

STEPS TOWARD SAINTHOOD

Once a person is pronounced venerable, the next step is beatification, which occurs when the person is declared “blessed” following proof of a miracle through the person’s intercession. Canonization, the last step, requires a second proven miracle.

Wolf said 21 alleged miracles have so far been reported and attributed to Father Flanagan’s intercession. Two were chosen for investigation but could not be confirmed to be of strictly supernatural origin.

Despite reports of possible miracles, Father Flanagan’s sainthood cause would come to an end if he is not declared venerable, he said.

That’s why the Father Flanagan League promotes devotion to the priest and encourages people to pray to him for intercession, and to pray for advancement of the cause.

“We ask ourselves at the league, ‘What more can we do to encourage and inspire a billion Catholics around the world to pick Father Flanagan as their intercessor,’” Wolf said.

One such effort, he said, is the league’s effort to raise money for production and distribution of a feature-length documentary on the priest’s life, including broadcast on PBS and other media outlets and video distribution around the world.

“We need more examples of what living in the Gospel looks like in the modern age,” Wolf said. “We need Father Flanagan’s example of how to recognize and respect the dignity and the image and likeness of God within every child and every person.

“He speaks to us right now in this current time and gives an example of how we can do better. He is an icon and role model for how priests can and should work with children and lift them up when they’re most vulnerable.”