‘Go to Detroit!’

On Dec. 8, 1896, now Blessed Solanus Casey (1870-1957) was in a vocational crisis. He had been asked to leave the diocesan seminary in Milwaukee because his grades — C’s, B’s and a couple A’s — were considered signs that somehow portended, in the opinion of his priest formators, future inadequacy as a seminarian and parish priest. Nevertheless, because they couldn’t help but note his virtuous character and intense piety, they (condescendingly) suggested that someone of his intelligence might have a vocation to be a religious. So he wrote to the provincial superiors of the Jesuits, the Franciscans and the Capuchins, and as all were willing to give him a chance, he didn’t know which to choose. 

Together with his mother and sister in Superior, Wis., he prayed a Novena to Our Lady prior to the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception, and on her feast he distinctly heard her say to him, “Go to Detroit.” This was, first and foremost, an indication that he should become a Capuchin, because their provincial headquarters and novitiate were located there. Those three words, however, became a recurring geographical imperative that characterized the major moments of his life. 

After his priestly ordination, he served in Yonkers, Lower East Manhattan and Harlem for 20 years until he got the word from his superiors in 1924 to “go to Detroit,” where his work as a door keeper and caring for the poor and sick would make him famous not just in his lifetime but for the rest of time. After brief assignments in Brooklyn and Huntington, Ind., he would receive word in obedience once more to “Go to Detroit” where he spent the last 18 months of his life, suffering with various illnesses, entrusted himself to God in death and was buried. 

The command “Go to Detroit” now draws to the Motor City Catholics throughout the United States and across the globe. As we saw before, during and after his November 18 beatification, it draws us, physically or prayerfully, to Blessed Solanus. It calls us to a city that symbolizes the renaissance that the Church must consistently undergo and that is charting the path to living and unleashing the Gospel with renewed ardor. 

I was so happy to be among the nearly 70,000 who filled Ford Field as Blessed Solanus was officially raised to the altars. I have been to bigger Catholic Masses — World Youth Days, mega-beatifications and canonizations in Rome, and various other papal Liturgies — but never to a Mass so big that retained a “small feel.” Ford Field was like the first Blessed Solanus Casey Parish. 

Everyone sang with gusto the hymns and Mass parts. The lectors, including a member of his family, were normal, unpolished, sincere, and prayerful, like those you’d find on any Sunday in a parish near you. Everyone laughed in unison — a sign of how much everybody was paying attention — at Cardinal Angelo Amato’s joke that Father Solanus had “one little defect in his life,” namely, he was a “bad musician.” 

On the field, with big “VIP passes” — the tickets were printed by the company that does all the concerts and sporting events at Ford Field, and priests and everyone on the field had large lanyards saying “VIP” like those on the sidelines during Lions games — there were many of Father Solanus’ special friends, the homeless, poor, blind, crippled and otherwise handicapped. There was a well-dressed boy with Down Syndrome who read one of the Prayers of the Faithful and, while I was distributing Holy Communion, I was approached by what must have been a community of Down adults, all dressed to the nines, who received the Lord with heart-rending devotion. 

There was something beautifully ordinary and simple about a Liturgy that was by its nature extraordinary and elaborate. There was a poised, down-to-earth, “This is what we Catholics do” sense about it, as if beatification Liturgies were now becoming routine enough on our shores that we can celebrate them like big weddings or ordinations rather than once-in-a-lifetime events. It even had a hometown feel for me as seated next to me, by coincidence, was a friend from the Archdiocese of Boston, Father Bob Kickham. 

Cardinal Angelo Amato, who has the coolest job in the Church as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and therefore Pope Francis’ delegate to celebrate beatifications throughout the world, always prays the Mass with noble simplicity and preaches in a way that does justice to the beatus and moves the heart. 

At the beginning of his homily, he accentuated the local feel, noting that in contrast to Blessed Stanley Rother, whom he beatified in Oklahoma City in September and who was martyred as a missionary in Guatemala, “Blessed Francis Solanus Casey attained holiness, here, in the United States of America.” He stressed the “here,” as if to remind us all that we don’t have to be killed in hatred of the faith on foreign soil, or go to Italy, Poland, Calcutta, or back in time to become a saint. If Father Solanus could become holy here, through loving his needy neighbors, then each of us, he implied, can follow him up the ladder of sanctity. 

He emphasized that Father Solanus’ sanctity flowed from the faith that was cultivated in his home and then later among his Capuchin brethren, a reminder that Catholic homes and religious communities can and are called to be schools of sanctity. He underlined how Father Solanus excelled in the ordinary means God has given us to grow in holiness, especially through Eucharistic and Marian piety: “He always used to pray, above all in front of the Tabernacle,” Cardinal Amato said, and “had a son’s devotion to Mary and recited the Rosary with devotion.”

I was so happy that with a sense of mischievousness and holy irony Cardinal Amato mentioned Blessed Solanus’ preaching, since in his lifetime the Church embarrassingly did not deem him qualified to preach doctrinal sermons. “The preaching of Father Solanus was not a sterile and disincarnate announcement,” he said. “It was accompanied rather by the concrete practice of faith, hope and charity in his everyday life.” Saints are the living commentaries on the Word of God. Preaching with body language, they show us the Gospel. Father Solanus clearly did. He illustrated the words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi about preaching the Gospel always and, if necessary, using words.

“Go to Detroit.” Those words of Our Lady to young Bernard Casey on the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception 121 years ago still echo, beckoning us to draw near the new Blessed, whose life, Cardinal Amato said, “is an exemplary page of the Gospel, lived with human and Christian intensity, to [be] read with edification and emotion and to imitate with fervor.” 

Blessed Solanus has now been given Heavenly faculties to preach, and he does so powerfully and an exemplary way, calling us to faith, trust, love, conversion and holiness. 

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

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