“This is the feast, the victory of our God!” Music filled Detroit’s Ford Field, proclaiming God’s triumph in the life of Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin Franciscan priest. The voices of 66,000 singers greeted the procession of Capuchins and cardinals, the rich and the learned, as well as the healed and the beloved poor. It was Nov. 18, 2017; the joy bounced off the domed ceiling at the beatification rite for this self-effacing American man who was humbled by circumstances of birth and who bore humiliations by choice, in faith.
I was privileged, as a descendant of Father Solanus’ sister Genevieve, to have a floor seat at Ford Field as this humble friar was exalted in a victory so rare that it took a sold-out NFL stadium to contain it. Young adults in the crowd sported eyeglasses with bright red frames in honor of Blessed Solanus’ trademark red-rimmed spectacles.
I reflected on the life of Father Solanus and what his beatification means to me.
A “simplex” priest who was granted only limited priestly faculties; a “lesser-friar” of St. Francis; a man of limited education – Father Solanus lived in the poverty of his vocation and was often ill. Many of us would sink toward depression under the limitations Father Solanus accepted with thanksgiving. What many would view as defeat, Father Solanus joyfully embraced as sanctifying humiliation. For Solanus, humiliation became the doorway to Christ’s victory and power in his 20th century American life. The story of Blessed Solanus is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who, humiliated, condemned and executed, rose victorious over the great enemy of us all: death itself.
The beatification of Father Solanus officially proclaims him to be alive with Christ Jesus in heaven and thus able to intercede for those on earth who seek his prayers. For 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, the greatest victory is to be canonized a saint. Blessed Solanus is one step from that greatest of victories.
In our wealthy nation, Christians often forget that Christ usually is most victorious in the life of the humblest among us.
“I think Father’s humility is a sign of the Gospel truth that God works through the little ones,” said Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron. “St. Paul says, ‘We’re just vessels of clay so that God can be glorified.’ Father’s life, to my mind, is proof that the New Testament didn’t end when the books were finished being written, but they continue today.”
To me, the red-framed eyeglasses represent the paradox of Christ’s living victorious through the eyes and heart and voice of Blessed Solanus Casey. The fact that Solanus saw poorly without glasses reminds us that he was weak. By human standards, he needed help in many ways. Weakened in childhood by the diphtheria from which two of his sisters died and by a painful skin disease that never would be cured, the real “failing” that plagued Blessed Solanus as a young man was his inability to master priestly studies. His seminary studies were offered only in what were for him the tortuous languages of Latin and German. He never succeeded in a way that satisfied his superiors, so he was ordained, but never allowed to exercise full priestly ministries.
Blessed Solanus’s weakness proved to be the doorway through which Christ came to reside in him. Solanus may not have seen the world clearly, but he registered with mystical understanding the plight of many of the least among us. Never allowed to preach a formal sermon or to hear confessions, Blessed Solanus was in residence, for about half a century, to answer the door at monastery offices on the streets of New York and Detroit. Ordinary folks rang the doorbell, sometimes for 18 hours a day, to talk with the one they called “the holy priest.”
The paradox of Blessed Solanus’ red glasses is the paradox of the Gospel. Despite poor vision, Solanus saw with mystical insight into the heart of Christ, joining it in his own person to the hearts of the downtrodden, as evidenced by a thousand “favors” that came about through his intercession. Not distracted by the American dream of success, Solanus saw the sick and the poor, the wealthy and the strong, the powerful and the uneducated, all with the eyes of his Savior. In 21st-century terms, Solanus became a kind of superconductor of Jesus’ healing, consoling and teaching.
Of all the favors reported, Pope Francis recognizes the miraculous 2012 healing of a Panamanian woman, Paula Medina Zarate, who had a congenital, incurable skin condition. Fifty-five years after Solanus’ death, Zarate prayed for a long list of others’ intentions and for herself at the friar’s tomb. Even before rising from her knees, Zarate experienced instantaneous and visible relief from her skin condition.
How could it be that an encounter between a dead man and a hurting woman could result in a beatification? The answer, of course, lies in the way Blessed Solanus lived his life. At a young age, Blessed Solanus relinquished all self-serving dreams he might have had and obediently listened only for the plan of Christ in his life. This obedient holiness is itself a miracle and a victory in today’s America. But it is also “the one thing needed” (Lk 10:42) of baptized Catholics that we most often neglect.
Can we learn from Blessed Solanus to pay faithful attention to Jesus’ presence wherever we find him? With a firm belief in our own unworthy weakness, can we wear the red eyeglasses of humility, taking our eyes off of ourselves? Can we hold our so-called strengths lightly, depending not on ourselves, but on God and our neighbor? Father Solanus called religion “the happy science of our relationship with and dependence on God and our neighbor.”
By sharing the humble vision of Blessed Solanus, will today’s faithful reinvigorate our faith on Solanus’ blessed terms? Will we once again find words to console and strengthen one another in trials? Might we, like Blessed Solanus, look through the “red glasses” and conform our lives to the victory of our God?
Barbara Jean Daly Horell is director of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Catholic Biblical School.
Father Solanus Casey
One day in 1929, during the Great Depression, the poverty-stricken residents of Detroit began lining up outside St. Bonaventure Monastery – hungry and desperate. Father Solanus Casey, a Capuchin priest at the monastery, answered their call for help, telling the other friars, “They are hungry; get them some soup and sandwiches.” That day, the hungry and poor of Detroit felt comfort for the first time in months thanks to Father Solanus Casey, a beloved figure in the city whose compassion knew no bounds.
Father Solanus Casey, who spent 22 years at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit feeding the poor, praying for healing for the sick, and bringing a sense of peace and compassion to countless others, met the requirements for beatification and was named “blessed” in a Mass at Ford Field in Detroit on Nov. 18, 2017. The next step is sainthood.
When Father Solanus arrived in Detroit in 1924, he was already known as a beloved doorkeeper from his 20-year ministry at monasteries in the New York City area. Throughout his many years of ministry in New York and Detroit, Father Solanus was greatly sought after as a counselor, and for his blessings of the sick. Many felt his blessing brought about a cure for their illness. All who came to him were consoled by his counsel and his serenity.
Father Solanus died in Detroit in 1957. During his life and after his death, Father Solanus was known for his healing touch, and for the power of his intercessory prayers. Because of this, Father Gerald Walker, provincial minister of the Detroit Capuchins, initiated the first step to sainthood for Solanus after his death: He sent a report detailing Father Solanus’ life to the general superiors in Rome. In 1995, he was declared “Venerable” by Pope St. John Paul II. In May 2017, Pope Francis issued a decree confirming a miracle as a result of Venerable Solanus’ intercession, announcing the plan for his beatification.