The saintly character of Solanus Casey

Father Solanus Casey, who will be beatified this Saturday in Detroit, will quickly become, I believe, the most popular American ever raised to the altars. 

Until now, no American saint or blessed has fully captured the hearts of Catholics in the United States. Most Catholics do not celebrate or know the feast days of their fellow Americans in the eternal hall of fame or make pilgrimages to their shrines. 

But I think that is all about to change with Father Solanus (1870-1957). The Archdiocese of Detroit, the Father Solanus Guild, and the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph had a good read of the devotion Americans already have for him in deciding to hold his beatification at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions football team, which can fit 65,000 people in the stands and several thousand on the field. When free tickets became available on October 9, it took only a few hours before they were all gone. I’m so happy that I was able to be among the 70,000 chosen few.

The miracle that led to his beatification — straight out of Biblical times — is a sign of what God seems to want to grant through Father Solanus’ intercession. 

Paula Medina Zarate, a 57-year-old retired schoolteacher from Chepo, Panama, had come to Detroit in 2012 with Capuchins working in her country. She had a rare and severe condition called ichthyosis, which makes skin hard and dry like fish scales and made her arms, legs and occasionally her head appear almost reptilian. The scales, moreover, were painful, bled often, and led to Paula’s constantly trying to cover herself so that people wouldn’t be scared away. 

Kneeling against Father Solanus’ tomb, she prayed for her family, former students, and the people of Chepo. Then she heard someone’s voice saying from within, “And what do you need for yourself?” She asked for mercy for her condition. She began to feel intense heat on her legs, arms and scalp. As she walked away, the scales on her skin began to fall to the ground. When she got to her room, they continued to cascade bloodlessly to the floor, leaving a rosy flesh in their wake, like that of a newborn. She gathered the scales onto a piece of paper and showed them to the Capuchin priest who had accompanied her, who rejoiced at the totality and immediacy of the miracle. When she was eventually examined by dermatologists as part of the canonization process, they declared that there is no medical explanation for what occurred: ichthyosis is a genetic condition and her genes haven’t changed. The miracle of her not having the painful, unsightly scales is, therefore, a continuous one. 

Saints, as we know, are not merely powerful intercessors, but also examples, and there’s so much we can all learn from the new beatus. I’d like to mention three, conspicuous virtues. 

The first is hospitality. For most of his religious life, in Yonkers, Manhattan, Harlem and Brooklyn, in Huntington, Ind., or, most famously, in Detroit, he was a porter, welcoming people to the Capuchin monasteries, listening to their problems, answering their questions and needs, praying for and with them. Huge numbers of people would come to see him, especially the poor and the sick, and leave changed, often with prayers for miracles heard. Welcoming them, he helped them similarly to welcome with faith in Divine providence whatever God sent. “O what God must have ahead of us,” he would say, “if we only leave all to His planning.” He showed the whole Church and every Catholic what true Christian hospitality is, does and effects. 

The second is humility. He came from a humble, hard-working Irish farming family, and worked as a logger, electric street car operator, prison guard and hospital orderly before entering the high school seminary at the old age of 21. Classes were in German, with which he always struggled. His poor grades led to his being asked to withdraw as a diocesan seminarian, but his piety led his formators to suggest he apply to religious orders. He did and, moved by mystical suggestion by Our Lady, went to Detroit to become a Capuchin. His grades never really improved, however, and his superiors determined to ordain him at 33 a “simplex priest,” one who could celebrate Mass but, because of his supposed lack of erudition, without faculties for hearing Confessions or preaching doctrinal sermons. He received what was given with gratitude. “In order to practice humility,” he would often say to others, “we must experience humiliations.” While he never heard Confessions, he received the confidences of so many and pointed them toward God’s mercy. Similarly, while he didn’t give doctrinal sermons characteristic of the age, he did preach short homilies on faith and trust in God to prisoners, to parishioners at a Maltese parish in Detroit where he used to help out on Sundays, at the 50th anniversary Mass of his parents, and at the first Mass of his friend, Father Paul Francis Wattson, founder of the Society of the Atonement. The Lord exalts the humble and on Saturday, this humble simple priest will be lifted up by the Church as an example for all. 

The third is virtue in cheerful, grateful, total self-giving. He patiently and perseveringly spent hours receiving and serving the long lines of those who approached. As he got older and frailer, his fellow Capuchins tried to protect him, by sending him to monasteries far from the mobs, but people always found him and he always answered the call. “I look on my whole life as giving,” he said, “and I want to give and give until there is nothing left of me.” When his suffering became intense, he confessed, “I am offering my suffering that we might all be one. Oh, if I could only live to see the conversion of the whole world.” He knew that suffering was a particularly powerful type of bodily prayer: “When Jesus sends crosses and trials into our life,” he taught, “He is inviting us to help Him save the world.” 

He sought to turn even his death into a prayer.  “Let us thank God ahead of time for whatever He foresees is pleasing to Him,” he said, including “when, where and how He may be pleased to dispose the events of our death.” Dying, for him, was a thing of love, not fear. “Death can be beautiful, like a wedding, if we make it so,” he said with a smile. As he lay dying, 53 years to the hour of his first Mass, his last words were a Eucharistic oblation, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ,” a fitting valedictory for someone who his whole life had been giving everything he had to the Bridegroom of every Christian soul.  

He once wrote about the three things that characterize “saintly characters.” They were “eagerness for the glory of God, touchiness about the interests of Jesus, and anxiety for the Salvation of souls.” Such eagerness, attentiveness, and holy anxiety were what people always recognized in him. And those are three things that from Heaven he is doubtless praying will characterize us, so that together with all the angels and saints, this holy porter will be able in Heaven to do what gave him so much joy on earth — and welcome us forever to the monastery of the Heavenly Jerusalem. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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