Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hold them back” (Mt 19:14). It’s an appropriate introduction to the honor I recently received.
I was interviewed by a local reporter in February after being named Legatus’ Chaplain of the Year at the Summit in late January. (Thank you for that honor, by the way! I am very humbled. I give all the credit to our amazing Omaha Chapter.)
The interview was interesting and far reaching. The kind and thoughtful reporter asked me one particular question that got me thinking. She asked, “What has been the most surprising thing in your priesthood thus far?” (For me, that’s 18 years this June.)
I paused for a second and then responded. “Being part of canonical processes that concluded with some of my brothers being removed from the priesthood for grave crimes against minors.” She was shocked, and I guess I was, too. I was ordained in 1999, and while I did study canon law, I didn’t see that coming!
And yet, I don’t regret that necessary work for a second. In April 2002, after meeting with 12 U.S. cardinals and bishops’ conference officers at the Vatican, Pope St. John Paul II told them he was “deeply grieved” by news of clerical sexual abuse and said there was no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm children.
Happily, my canon law studies also put me in a position to be the archbishop’s delegate for the cause of canonization of the Servant of God, Fr. Edward J. Flanagan. Overseeing this cause put me in deep contact with an American priest (born in Ireland, but he served in Omaha his entire priesthood) who spent his life serving young people and doing so in an exemplary way!
He founded Boys Town in Omaha to support at-risk youth in 1917. Then-Bishop Jeremiah James Harty had misgivings, but endorsed Fr. Flanagan’s work. Because the downtown facilities were inadequate, the priest established Boys Town 10 miles west of Omaha in 1921.
Under Fr. Flanagan’s direction, Boys Town grew to be a large community with its own boy-mayor, schools, chapel, post office, cottages, gymnasium, and other facilities where boys between the ages of 10 and 16 could receive an education and learn a trade. Father Flanagan did not believe in the reform school model, and stated, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.”
Boys Town, a 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy, was based on Fr. Flanagan’s life. Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance. Mickey Rooney also starred as one of the residents. Tracy spent his entire acceptance speech talking about the priest.
In 1948, Fr. Flanagan died while attempting to found Boys Town-like apostolates in Europe for the displaced children suffering after World War II.
Omaha Archbishop George Lucas opened Fr. Flanagan’s cause for canonization in 2012. The local work was completed three years later, and his cause is now in Rome at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Only God knows how long this process will take.
What I know from our extensive investigations of his life is that Fr. Flanagan served in a noble way for our youth. Boys Town is a national model for dealing with at-risk youth, and he was a sterling model of priestly zeal and compassion for them. Everything, in my mind, points to the sanctity of this committed disciple of Jesus Christ.
My hope and prayer is that the Vatican will see the same and quickly lift him up to the communion of saints as an American priest who spent his entire life serving young people in a saintly way. Given all we have been through, we could certainly use such a faithful, priestly model!
Servant of God, Fr. Edward J. Flanagan, pray for us!
FATHER RYAN LEWIS is the chaplain of Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School and chaplain of Legatus’ Omaha Chapter. Wikipedia.com contributed to this article.