'Go to Detroit'
On December 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 (somewhat 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, Wisconsin, he prayed a novena to our Lady prior to the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception, and on her feast he distinctly heard her answer his prayers, saying 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 for the next two decades would make him famous not just in his lifetime but for the rest of time.
Much later, after brief assignments in Brooklyn and Huntington, Indiana to give him a chance to rest, 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 to a local Church that is charting, with his intercession, the path to living and unleashing the Gospel with renewed ardor.
I was so happy to be among the nearly 71,000 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 such 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 Downs 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 Downs 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 Fr. 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 Fr. 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 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 every-day life."
Saints are the living commentaries on the word of God. Preaching with body language, they show us the Gospel, as Father Solanus clearly did. He illustrated the words often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi about preaching the Gospel always and, if necessary, using words.
Cardinal Amato's allusion to Blessed Solanus' having been ordained a "simplex priest" -- one who could celebrate Mass but who didn't have the faculties to hear confessions, anoint the sick, or preach formally in the name of the Church -- was indirectly to address, in my opinion, an elephant in the sanctuary: the Church's colossally embarrassing misjudgment of God's gifts to Father Solanus in life.
Because he struggled with German, his diocesan formators deemed him incapable of being a parish priest and his religious superiors thought him irremediably incompetent to preach and hear confessions auf Deutsch or in any language.
All things work out for the good for those who love God, St. Paul teaches, and God certainly brought great good out of Father Solanus' life, but can we not ponder how much more good could have come if those making decisions at the time had greater supernatural vision?
One of his first Capuchin formators, Fr. Anthony Rottensteiner, seemed to have this vision, saying before Brother Solanus made his final vows in 1901, when the question of his fitness for the priesthood was in question, "We shall ordain Frater Solanus and as a priest, he will be to the people something like the Curé of Ars." St. John Vianney (1786-1859) was kicked out of seminary three times because he couldn't master Latin, but became the greatest confessor of all time and the patron saint of parish priests. The wise Father Rottensteiner, however, died soon thereafter and when the decision was being made to ordain Solanus a simplex priest, his holy insight seemed to have been forgotten.
Over the course of his 53 years as a priest, Father Solanus, it is said, "heard many confessions" -- when people brought to him their problems -- but "just couldn't give absolution." It's likewise evident that he, like St. John Vianney, was the instrument through whom God worked many miracles of healing not just the body but the psyche and soul. But I can't help but think of St. John Vianney's words that what God does through a priest in the confessional is a far greater miracle than raising Lazarus from the dead. Moreover, Father Solanus' priest assistants and corresponding secretaries always marveled at the sound, concise, and often profound advice he would give to those who wrote him with spiritual problems, the very type of guidance, cooperating with the Holy Spirit's gift of counsel, that makes great confessors.
What greater miracles and how much more good could Father Solanus have accomplished if the Church had given him the ability to hear confessions?
Similarly, how many more people would have been inspired if Father Solanus, whose informal "fervorinos" and "homilies" were powerful and beautiful commentaries on God's love applied to Christian daily life and struggles, had been given the faculty to preach?
How is it that he was not given full priestly faculties later, as one of his classmates (whose German was better!) eventually was, especially considering that Father Solanus' priestly ministry was almost entirely in English?
I can think of a few reasons why God might have permitted it.
The first was to help Father Solanus become great in humility so that he could show the Church, and particularly all priests and religious, how important are the fundamental activities in which he excelled, like welcoming people, listening to their problems, and praying with and for them.
The second was to help formators grow in humility and learn to think as God thinks rather than as human beings do (Mt 16:23). Jesus, after all, didn't raid rabbinical schools or linguistic academies for his apostles, but wharves and tax offices, choosing mostly men of thick accents, poor Greek grammar and minimal formal education. How many future blessed and saints -- John Vianney, Stanley Rother, Solanus Casey, and the long list goes on -- need to be kicked out of seminary because, essentially, they're not good at languages?
I think a third reason is for priests. If Blessed Solanus was considered incapable of preaching and hearing confessions, how seriously should we regard and gratefully exercise those awesome gifts and tasks?
"Go to Detroit." Those words of our Lady to young Barney 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, at long last, been given heavenly faculties to preach, and he does so powerfully and in exemplary fashion, calling us to similar faith, trust, love, conversion and holiness, so that we might follow him not just to Detroit but to the celestial 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.