The Saintly Character of Solanus Casey

Just three years ago, the first beatification ever to take place on U.S. soil occurred in Newark's majestic Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. 2,500 people jammed into the Church, the fifth largest Cathedral in the country, to celebrate the raising to the altars of Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich (1921-1927), a native of Bayonne, who became a Sister of Charity. It was really moving to be present at a beatification in English, in our country, and the whole ceremony served as an unforgettable illustration that seeds of the universal call to holiness can find good soil in our land and produce great fruit.

Two months ago, I was present at the second beatification, of priest, missionary and martyr, Father Stanley Rother (1937-1981). 14,000 people filled the Cox Convention Center in his home archdiocese of Oklahoma City, several thousand others squeezed into overflow rooms, and 5,000 others were unfortunately not able to make it inside; this, in a part of the country where Catholics are only five percent of the population. To me the turnout, which far surpassed the expectations of the organizers, was an indication of the deep, albeit occasionally latent, hunger for holiness and devotion to saints that exists among American Catholics in general.

If there were any doubt about that desire and devotion, it should be put to rest this weekend in Detroit with the beatification of Capuchin Father Solanus Casey (1870-1957). I love the holy audacity of the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Fr. Solanus Guild, and the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, headquartered in Detroit, for deciding to hold the celebration in Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions football team, which can fit 65,000 people in the stands and several thousand on the field. Their confidence in people's interest was justified and amply rewarded: 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 about the 70,000 chosen few, along with 500 priests, 235 Capuchins, 300 members of Fr. Solanus' extended family, and so many fellow devotees.

Father Solanus, I believe, will quickly become 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. As inspiring as the lives of Saints Frances Xavier Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Katharine Drexel, Mother Theodore Guerin, Damien de Veuster, Marianne Cope, Kateri Tekakwitha, Junipero Serra, and the North American Martyrs, or Blesseds Francis Xavier Seelos, Miriam Teresa Demjanovich and Stanley Rother are, none really inspires the type of devotion that we see, for example, when relics of St. Padre Pio, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John Vianney, or St. Anthony of Padua come to the United States. Most Catholics do not celebrate or know the feast days of 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. He already had a great following in his lifetime, as thousands would come to him wherever he was stationed, in Yonkers, Manhattan, Harlem and Brooklyn, New York, in Huntington, Indiana, or, most famously, in Detroit. He had a great love for the poor and care for the sick and they came to him by the multitudes. He was filled with the spirit of wisdom and was able to help people find God in the midst of their ordinary lives. And his prayers were powerful, with many miracles being recorded during his lifetime and countless predictions of the future being fulfilled.

The miracle that led to his beatification -- straight out of Biblical times -- is a sign of what God seems to want to grant through Fr. 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.

After praying at Fr. Solanus' tomb for her mother, brothers, former students, and the people of Chepo, she interiorly heard a voice, asking, "And what do you need for yourself?" Kneeling against Fr. Solanus' tomb, she begged 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 priests who had accompanied her, who rejoiced at the totality and immediacy of the miracle. When she was 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 hadn't changed. The miracle of her not having the painful, unsightly scales is, therefore, a continuous one. Those who love Fr. Solanus are not are not only not surprised at the miracle, but find it quite fitting that it's the miracle for his beatification, since Fr. Solanus himself died of a similarly painful skin disease, erysipelas.

I would urge everyone, especially on the day of his beatification, to prayer for miracles, not just for others, but, like Paula, for what we need for ourselves.

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, 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 and leave changed. 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." How beautiful it must have been in 1935 when St. André Bessette, the saintly porter who carried out a similar ministry at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, came to Detroit and the two met. They show the whole Church and every Catholic what true Christian hospitality is, does and effects.

The second is humility. Fr. Solanus 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 high school seminary at the old age of 21. Classes were in German, a language with which he always struggled. His poor grades led to his being asked to withdraw from the Diocesan seminary, but his piety led his formators to suggest he apply to religious orders. He did and, moved by a mystical suggestion from our Lady in prayer, he 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," meaning 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 state, "we must experience humiliations." While he never heard confessions, he received the confidences of so many and pointed them toward God's mercy. "You pray for my conversion and I will pray for yours," he told many. 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, Fr. 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 priests and faithful.

The third is virtue is 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 mark "saintly characters." They are "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.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.