By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
Fr. James Flanagan, the founder of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), passed away on March 24 at the age of 91. Few people are familiar with this saintly man who preferred a hidden life while touching the lives of so many through the ministries of SOLT priests, consecrated and lay people.
Born on May 29, 1924, the Feast of the Ascension, James Henry Flanagan always had a special connection to Our Lady. In his youth, the Boston native was given a deep faith by his parents, James and Rose. His father took young James and his three brothers and sister to daily Mass, planting the seeds for his future priestly vocation.
Flanagan went to Notre Dame University on a football scholarship, but his studies were interrupted by World War II in 1943. He then served in the U.S. Navy as part of the underwater demolition team, clearing mines on the Normandy beaches for D-Day. Out of a hundred men in his group, only three survived. He then went on to become a Navy Frog Man—the precursor to the Navy Seals—in the Pacific theatre of the war. After the war, he returned to Notre Dame and was an integral part of the school’s three national championship football titles.
Flanagan then entered St. John Seminary in the Archdiocese of Boston and was ordained by Archbishop Richard Cushing on January 10, 1952. Five years later, Fr. Flanagan was allowed to leave Boston to prepare for the foundation of SOLT in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The order comprised of priests, consecrated sisters and brothers and lay members was formally established on July 16, 1958. Today, SOLT is headquartered in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, with missions and apostolates around the U.S. and in 13 other countries.
Although I am not a member of SOLT, I had the pleasure of getting to know Fr. Flanagan. He was my spiritual director for two years when I lived in Rome and he provided my future husband and I with marriage preparation. His presence, although very quiet and peaceful, filled a room. With a shock of white hair and bushy white eyebrows, his grandfatherly air immediately put people at ease. He would call me “sis” (a name he used with so many to emphasize that we are all family in Christ) as a sign of affection, but spoken with his Boston accent, it had a most endearing ring to it.
“Fr. Jim saw goodness in others, he perceived that they should be spoken well of, and his desire was to bring them into communion with the family of God.” said Fr. Peter Marsalek, the General Priest Servant of SOLT, in his homily for Fr. Flanagan’s funeral, “I think it's the reason why so many people felt so close to him – he believed in us, encouraged us and thought that with God’s grace we could do just about anything!” This was one of Fr. Flanagan’s greatest attributes – like that grandfather that adores everything about his grandchild – he provided not only the tools to help one discern God’s will, but also the confidence and love necessary to do it. He loved with the love of God the Father.
After our first visit for our marriage prep, Father said to us, “Jesus and Mary told me to do something different with you two.” So we got a most unique and beautiful marriage prep, perfectly suited to our needs. He mentioned several times what a wonderful gift it is for a newly married couple to have a year together set apart, either traveling, or somewhere away from the chaos of jobs and daily life, to just be together. My fiancé and I listened and thought that sounded lovely, but it could never work for us financially. Fr. Flanagan pulled a few spiritual strings – we spent a year, almost to the day, rarely separated. We were unemployed. At the time, it seemed a terrible cross – living in the home of generous friends with no income other than savings and a baby on the way. In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a better way to start our married life than to learn the balancing act of joy, trust and sacrifice.
Other than talking about Our Lady and the Trinity, Fr. Flanagan had a soft spot for babies and strongly promoted St. Joseph as an aid for infertility. He told the story of one woman and her husband who had been trying to have a baby for years. Fr. Flanagan told them to start praying to St. Joseph. “Oh, Father, it is no use. I have an infantile womb and can’t have children,” she sobbed. Unruffled, Fr. Flanagan said, “Pray to St. Joseph.” In the meantime, Fr. Flanagan was considering sending this couple to Belize so he went to a gynecologist to ask a few questions. “If a woman with an infantile womb gets pregnant, will there be any problems with the delivery?” he asked the doctor. The doctor responded, “Well, if she had an infantile womb, there won’t be a baby.” “Yes,” Father persisted, “but if she gets pregnant, will there be a problem delivering?” They went back and forth like this a few more times until the doctor, losing his patience and growing concerned that Fr. Flanagan was losing his mind, said “Biologically, it is impossible for a woman to get pregnant when she has an infantile womb.” And Father asked again, “But if she gets pregnant…” The doctor, in exasperation said, “Well, if God puts a baby in the womb, I’m sure he will find a way to get it out.” Eventually, the couple did pray to St. Joseph, they did get pregnant, and she did deliver the baby safely in Belize – followed by several other children.
Whether it was the Trinity, Mary, or the saints, Fr. Flanagan emphasized over and over the importance of authentic relationship with the population of heaven. “It’s all about relationship!!!” I can still hear him saying. In an effort to deepen my faith and relationship with these real people, he suggested that I give up many of my daily devotions and just be present to God, just listen to him. You will know when he is initiating communication with you – when that happens, stop what you are doing and be present. But Fr. Flanagan also emphasized personal relationships on earth, particularly the essential role of the family. Speaking of his own father, he said, “My father was really the inspiration of my life. He had a sense of the sacredness of the things of God; he would go to ordinations to the priesthood, taking his children with him. And we would all receive the newly ordained priests’ blessings at the Cathedral. Then he would take us to the Seminary to get their blessings, and then to their first Masses and again get their blessings. All this prompted my mother to say to him, ‘Jim Flanagan, you’ll bless these children out of existence!'”
An entire book could (and should) be written about Fr. Flanagan’s life and legacy, including the many miracles he performed, his deep theological insights about Mary and the Trinity, and the love and fidelity he had for the faith. His life is, however, best summed up by the day selected for his death. For those that knew him, it was no surprise that he died on Holy Thursday, the feast of the Institution of the Eucharist. “As Fr. Jim said, our life is meant to be lived from ‘Communion to Communion,’” Fr. Marsalek explained in his funeral homily. “Indeed, as a priest, whenever Fr. Jim heard word of the death of someone, whatever time of day, he would immediately celebrate Mass for the person! Nothing was more important for Fr. Jim than celebrating the Eucharist, and for that reason he had such a remarkable esteem for the priesthood!”
Saints of every period embody the virtues contrary to the vices of the culture, for example, St. Francis embraced poverty when the Church was choked by riches while St. Ignatius fought for truth when heresy was spreading like wildfire. Fr. Flanagan certainly embraced poverty, and truth, but what was also remarkable about him was his avoidance of media and any sort of celebrity status. In a culture drowning in the celebrity, Fr. Flanagan sought out anonymity and a hidden life, despite the many miracles, deep wisdom, and attractive Marian charism that he generously gave to others. He preached the idea of being like the anawim – Hebrew for poor ones, or little ones – to offer everything back to God in true humility and meekness.
Dr. Christine A. Mugridge, a lay member of SOLT, spoke a bit about his humility. “There are many people who serve the poor and talk about the poor, but father lived with them. Father would say, ’I am and we are, the last, the least and the lowest, because Our Lady in her humility thought of herself as the last, the least, and the lowest.’ He lived this out. If there was a new postulant that didn’t have a bed, Father would give up his bed and sleep in an armchair.”
“Father once told me,” Mugridge added, “the Church throughout the ages reveals the face of Christ in different ways according to the needs of the Father. There is a need for the Church to become the face of Christ in his poverty and for the Church to become the Church of the poor and to live as the poor live.”
“This is what Pope Francis is doing,” she continued. “Fr. Flanagan’s prophetic word was a good five years before Francis became pope. His vision was linked to the new evangelization of the whole world, which is why SOLT is going to the Third World, to the newly emancipated Eastern Bloc countries, Africa, and far reaches of Asia. To bring the Church to the poor.”