The gentle holiness of Blessed Solanus Casey

On Nov. 18 in Detroit, Blessed Solanus Casey will become the second U.S-born priest to be beatified, joining Oklahoma City priest Father Stanley Rother, who was beatified just this September. Among the personal effects belonging to Blessed Stanley at the time of his 1981 martyrdom were several relics. It’s notable that one of those few relics in his possession was a third-class relic of Father Solanus, a Capuchin friar and miracle worker who gained widespread notoriety for his holiness.

The cause of canonization informally began for Blessed Solanus in 1960, when the Father Solanus Guild was established to preserve his memory. Favors began being reported to Rome in the mid-1960s. A canonization cause was initiated via the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1976, and in 1995 it was declared Father Solanus lived a life of heroic virtue, earning him the distinction as the first U.S.-born male to be given the title “venerable.” A miracle attributed to his intercession was validated in 1998, only to be proven false subsequently. On May 4, 2017, Pope Francis approved the miracle attributed to his intercession that cleared the path for his beatification — an event that will be held Nov. 18 at Detroit’s Ford Field in front of an anticipated crowd of 60,000 or more.

Ahead of this special event, we look back at the life of Father Solanus, so well-known as a miracle worker, but who more importantly teaches us how to grow in our own relationships with God and others.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.

Who is Father Solanus Casey?

Born Bernard Francis Casey in Wisconsin to Irish immigrant parents on Nov. 25, 1870, he spent his early years gaining a reputation as diligent and hard working. But not unlike many of the saints, Blessed Solanus struggled in identifying his vocation. Time and again it seemed he had found where God wanted him, only to find out otherwise.

“IMAGE'
CNS photo

As a young adult he tried his hand at a variety of jobs — from operating a street car to serving as a prison guard. Always personable and charming, Blessed Solanus did not find it too difficult to fit in and develop relationships with those around him.

But Blessed Solanus was left wanting more than just a job. In his young adult years, he thought marriage was in his future — having proposed to a young woman only to have her disapproving mother send her off to a boarding school. A very sensitive man by nature, this experience wounded him deeply. But experiences such as this led him to learn how to unite his sensitivity and the many hurts in his life with the sufferings of Christ.

Searching for his vocation

As is the case with divine providence, when God closes one door he opens another — an even better one. And so he did for Blessed Solanus. This would be shown time and again throughout his life because of the many challenges posed to him regarding his vocation. The unfolding story of his vocation taught him much about the dependence on God’s will and providence; what he learned is the path to his heart’s contentment and peace.

After witnessing a brutal murder of a woman while on duty as a street-car operator in 1891, Blessed Solanus first felt the call to the priesthood. He felt the urge to do something concrete to bring about change in a broken world and make a difference in the lives of others. After praying and reflecting for a few days, Blessed Solanus visited his parish priest and asked how to go about entering the seminary.

He was destined for more hurt and disappointment during his time at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee. Having gone out in search of work as a young man to help his financially struggling family, Blessed Solanus had not completed any schooling higher than eighth grade, and this made his seminary studies difficult. Classes were conducted in German and Latin, and Blessed Solanus struggled academically, particularly with languages.

Although the seminary officials in Milwaukee dismissed him because of his poor grades, they were of the opinion that the religious life might be a good fit for him. He visited the Capuchin Franciscans nearby, but felt no attraction to their life — especially their use of German or their wearing of the cumbersome beards he disliked. Not sure of what to do next, he went home in 1896.

A Love for the violin
“IMAGE'
Blessed Solanus was given a new name when he professed vows as a Capuchin — after the Franciscan St. Francis Solanus. The Spanish priest was a missionary to South America and known for playing his violin for the native peoples to whom he brought the Gospel. As a means to bring them joy, the saint also would play the violin for the sick and suffering he visited.

Entering the Capuchins

Under the tutelage and counsel of a Capuchin in Wisconsin, however, the young Casey decided to give the Capuchins a closer look, although he still was reticent and unenthused. The friar who counseled him even said the beard would help his throat, where he suffered chronic illness. After a lengthy correspondence, Blessed Solanus was accepted into the order.

Throughout his life, Blessed Solanus was especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so he decided to place his future in her hands. After completing a novena in commemoration of her Immaculate Conception, Blessed Solanus received a mystical experience that relayed to him an important message: “Go to Detroit.”

Detroit was home to the novitiate for the Capuchin province of St. Joseph. Nothing else could explain the urgency, then, of his desire to head for Detroit except for the peace and serenity he found. After receiving his bishop’s blessing, he chose to forego a Christmas at home with his family and made his way to Detroit with haste, arriving there on Christmas Eve.

Despite further doubts and fears, Blessed Solanus turned to the Blessed Mother for assistance and felt a sense of peace about the next step. In January, he entered the Capuchins, and with the Franciscan habit, he received a new name, Francis Solanus, after the 17th-century Franciscan missionary to South America who also loved to play the violin.

Ice Cream and Miracles
“IMAGE'
One hot summer day, Blessed Solanus had seen many people at the door seeking his blessing and counsel. One visitor had come to thank him for his help in one manner or another, bringing ice cream cones to celebrate. Called to another situation, Blessed Solanus sat the ice cream in his desk drawer.

“IMAGE'

Growing in holiness

Franciscan life fit like a glove for Blessed Solanus. As a Franciscan, he grew to love the things St. Francis loved and adopted his way of life as his own. Illustrative of the excellence he achieved at Franciscan living, shortly after his death the Capuchin minister general described Blessed Solanus as “an extraordinary example of a true Capuchin, and a replica of St. Francis.”

Blessed Solanus particularly grew to love poverty, for in it he found the graces of self-abandonment. Poverty enabled him to seek the things that mattered most — love of God and love of neighbor. These “greatest commandments” were the keystones of his spirituality.

One of the biggest challenges in the quest for holiness that shows up time and again in the lives of saints is conquering selfishness and being able truly to love others, especially by getting along with them. Another of those challenges is learning to accept who God made you to be.

Blessed Solanus struggled in his quest to grow in patience, particularly with himself. He admitted he must learn how to let go of lifelong temptations to be judgmental and a perfectionist. “If you can honestly humble yourself, your victory is won,” he once said.

Blessed Solanus depended on God’s grace for growth in the spiritual life. Through prayer and experience, he learned not to seek the glory of this world, but to do all for God’s glory. He offers us wisdom in this regard: “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your task,” he once said. “Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

Father Solanus Casey: A Timeline
“IMAGE'
During his lifetime, countless men, women and young people came to Father Casey seeking wisdom, counsel and aid. CNS photo via The Michigan Catholic
◗ Born: Nov. 25, 1870

God’s doorkeeper

As Blessed Solanus immersed himself completely in the Franciscan life of prayer and study, his academic difficulties would soon present more disappointments for him. His Capuchin superiors doubted he was intellectually capable to serve as a priest and asked him to make a statement of intention that he would be at peace remaining in the community even if not ordained.

Eventually a compromise was offered. The Capuchins agreed to ordain Blessed Solanus a priest, albeit a “simplex” one, meaning he could not publicly preach nor hear confessions. Although this must have been a source of disappointment and embarrassment for Blessed Solanus, he fully embraced obedience to his superiors and, moreover, resolved to be a holy priest. “What a privilege it is to serve God — even in the least capacity,” he once wrote. “We should be grateful for and love the vocation to which God has called us.” He was ordained on July 24, 1904, at age 33.

During his first 14 years as a priest, Blessed Solanus served at a parish in Yonkers, New York. At first put in charge of training the altar boys, Blessed Solanus quickly became known for his dedication and patience. While assigned in Yonkers, Blessed Solanus was first assigned to be the porter — the monastery’s doorkeeper — the ministry for which he is most well known and remembered.

From 1918 to 1924, Blessed Solanus served as porter at a couple of different monasteries around New York City. As such, he encountered the real problems and situations of ordinary people. This ministry would define the rest of his life and ministry.

tomb Capuchins gather with Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron near Father Solanus Casey’s tomb during the May 4 beatification announcement. CNS photo via Archdiocese of Detroit

Movement and notoriety

Blessed Solanus gained a reputation for an almost childlike gentleness, as a man full of compassion and sensitivity who accompanied those who came seeking his guidance about their problems, his prayerful intercession or even his assistance in their healing. Many miracles occurred through his prayers and blessings, earning his renown as a wonderworker. None of this would have been possible without an extraordinary closeness to God.

From 1924 to 1945, Blessed Solanus was porter at St. Bonaventure Friary in Detroit. He made himself available to whomever needed him — in person, or by phone or letter. He once wrote to one of his sisters: “I have plenty to keep me busy for at least 18 hours a day.” Many healings were attributed to his prayer and blessing. When the Great Depression hit, Blessed Solanus was instrumental in the founding of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which still tends to the needs of Detroit’s poor.

His superiors intended to relieve Blessed Solanus from his own reputation by moving him to Brooklyn in 1945. However, these plans were ignored by the people’s needs, which knew no distance. It was decided to then send him to the remote Capuchin novitiate in Huntington, Indiana, in 1946.

Casey spent a decade in the small Hoosier town. The friars who lived with him experienced the miraculous, as did so many came to know about Father Solanus. He once protected their orchard from destruction by frost with his blessing, and he likewise brought healing to the beekeeping friar who received threatening stings. Calm and relaxed around the apiary, he was enlisted to care for the bees and would soothe them with his harmonica. Although officially retired while in Indiana, Blessed Solanus needed assistance from friars to keep up with his correspondence. All the while, he grew in his sufferings, from arthritis and a skin disease that had plagued him for decades. Unable to find relief in Huntington or nearby Fort Wayne, Blessed Solanus returned quietly to Detroit in 1956.

His last days were spent hospitalized in severe pain and agony due to the aggravation of his skin condition. Those around him testified he never complained or asked for anything to take away the pain. Blessed Solanus wished to die “perfectly conscious, so that with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God,” he said. His last words, uttered with eyes wide open and arms stretched out, were “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.”

Blessed Solanus died in Detroit on July 31, 1957. It was the 53rd anniversary of his first Mass. More than 20,000 people lined up to view his body before burial. And thousands more have come to him seeking intercession ever since.