One of the saints I featured in my book Inspiration from the Saints (which you can buy at the Amazon link to the right!) was Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar and priest who lived in America and died in 1957. His beatification came just as I was writing the book. (Obviously, as he has not been canonized, I am using the term "saint" loosely.)
Blessed Solanus is an extraordinarily interesting figure. I only learned about him relatively recently, through an Aid to the Church in Need pamphlet which I borrowed from a Legion of Mary stall a few years ago. But he's become one of my favourite saints already.
I've just finished reading a book about him, Father Solanus Casey by Catherine Odell. It was originally written in 1988, and updated for his beatification last year. It's a good book, although it does suffer from the besetting sin of all saints' biographies: speculation about what the saint "must have" thought and felt on such-and-such an occasion. Stick to the facts, please!
I read the book because I was hungry for more information about Fr. Solanus. I'd read and watched everything I could find on the internet (including through my library's online resources), but I kept coming across the same few details over and over again. I wanted more.
Fr. Solanus was renowned as a miracle worker, and it's impossible to read accounts of his life without believing that he was indeed the conduit for many, many miracles. While I find this fact extremely interesting as an indication of his holiness, I have very little interest in the specifics of the miracles (to the extent that I was tempted to skip over them, when reading the book). Therefore I won't linger on them here. His miracles mostly involved miracles of healing, but also foreseeing the future.
I'm interested in Fr. Solanus for a few reasons. The main one is that he is so close to me in time and space. I'm much more interested in recent saints than in ancient or medieval saints, and I'm much more interested in the saints of the English-speaking world than I am in saints from continental Europe, or Africa, or Asia. I'm a very provincial person!
Don't get me wrong. I rejoice to be a member of the universal Catholic Church, and I rejoice in its rich history. But I'm happy for that to be backdrop, when it comes to my own particular interests.
Blessed Solanus, of course, was Irish-American. Both of his parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland. He never came to Ireland, but he seems to have had a strong sense of Irish heritage-- he wrote a letter to the newspapers in 1922 in which he claimed that lovers of Ireland should oppose the Irish Free State simply because Britain supported it. (Like many Irish-American nationalists, he may have taken a rather simplistic view of the conflict. I have read in another source that Fr. Solanus lately wondered if he had gone too far in his nationalist rhetoric, but this book doesn't revisit the subject.)
He grew up on a farmer, with sixteen other children, some of whom also became priests and nuns. He worked as a streetcar operator, and he proposed to a girl whose mother discouraged the affair. She seems to have been his only girlfriend.
Although he was always pious, a few close encounters with death made him contemplate his life's purpose, and he entered a seminary for the diocesan priesthood, in Milwaukee. Here, he struggled, as the tuition was entirely through German (German immigration was high in this area, and there were language politics between German Catholics and Irish Catholics). His grades were actually quite good, but despite this he was told that he would not be equal to the academic demands of the seminary, although he was also told that he did indeed have a vocation and that he might be better suited to a religious order.
He visited the Capuchins in Milwaukee, but was rather discouraged by their way of life, and especially by the long untrimmed beards that they wore.
He prayed a novena for guidance with his mother and sister, and he also made a private vow of chastity at this time. (He was twenty-five.) During the novena, he felt God urging him to go to Detroit, where the Capuchins had another branch.
The story of his journey to Detroit is magical, one of my favourite saint stories of all. I am going to take the liberty of transcribing Odell's account in full:
In the midst of a blinding snowstorm, he left Superior on December 20 and headed southwest for St. Paul on the 11:00 p.m. train. From St. Paul, his train then headed east, pulling along slowly through drifting snow to Milwaukee. After a brief stayover there, during which Barney [his birth name] stayed with Capuchins for the first time, he boarded a train again. Down through Chicago and over through Michigan, his train headed for his goal-- Detroit.
On Christmas Eve, the train pulled into the station in Detroit at last. Barney located a streetcar and headed for Mt. Elliott Avenue. There, at 1740 Mt. Eillott, the young man finally arrived, well after dusk. Exhausted, he refused the offer of dinner. He was too tired. Upstairs, on the second floor, he was shown to his room; a simple, stark little space with a wooden door latch. The sight of it immediately renewed his fears of this Capuchin austerity. But, spent with the strain of travel, he pulled off his shoes and heavy coat, still wet with snow, pulled a blanket up over himself, and soon fell into a heavy sleep.
Just before midnight, he awoke to the sound of hand chimes and the voices of men singing. They were singing Christmas carols in German. It was Christmas Eve! As the voices grew louder, Barney could hear other men getting out of bed and coming down the corridor to join their voices with the little group of carolers. Barney joined them, and his heart was lifted. The gloom over his decision to follow Our Lady's orders and "go to Detroit" left him.
Down and around, through the darkened corridors, the carollers moved. Carrying candles, they roused the other Capuchins who then followed down into the chapel for Christmas Midnight Mass. It was a moving, joy-filled occasion and initiated a week or more of fesitivites.
That story has it all! Trains, snow, Christmas carols, a sudden change of mood...it is my favourite part of this saint's life story.
Solanus's troubles were not over, however. He also struggled in this seminary, as well, so much so that his superiors hesitated over whether they should ordain him. He was made to sign this humiliating document:
I, Frater [Brother] Solanus Casey, declare that I joined the Order of the Capuchins in the Province of St. Joseph with the sure intention to follow thus my religious vocations. Although I would wish and should be thankful, being admitted to the ordination of a priest, considering the lack of my talents, I leave it to my superiors to judge on my faculties and to dispose of me as I think best.
I will therefore lay no claim whatsoever if they should think me not able or not worthy for the priesthood and I will always humbly submit to their appointments.
Eventually, Solanus was ordained a simplex priest. That meant that he could celebrate Mass, but he couldn't hear confessions or preach. (He was allowed to give short exhortations called "feverinos", but no more.) He was thirty-three at the time of his ordination. He had been twenty-one at the beginning of his studies for the priesthood.
The director of the seminary realized his great holiness, and even predicted that he would be another St. Jean Vianney, a similarly challenged seminarian who eventually became the patron saint of parish priests.
Fr. Solanus was given a potentially humiliating job in his first friary, in Yonkers, New York. He was the sacristan, the person in charge of the altar boys and the preparation of the church for Mass. This job was usually given to friars, not priests. However, Fr. Solanus took it very seriously, as he took all the other jobs he was given through the years. Throughout his career, he was moved to various different postings; New York, Detroit, Indiana. This was a normal part of Capuchin life, but there was an additional motive for it in Fr. Solanus's case, which we'll come to soon.
It was when working as a porter-- the person who answered the friary door-- that Fr. Solanus really came into his own. He quickly gained a reputation as a holy man and a miracle worker. He listened patiently to the problems of visitors to the friary, and urged them to pray to God with confidence. He also took to enrolling them in the Seraphic Mass Association, a Capuchin initiative whereby, for a small fee, a member's prayer intentions would be prayed for by the worldwide Capuchin community. In the case of very poor people, Fr. Solanus would waive the fee. (He was quite careless about money. In later years, he had a secretary who would frequently find banknotes used as bookmarks in his books. On one occasion, the secretary found 153 dollars scattered through Fr. Solanus's room, in this absent-minded way.)
Huge numbers of people began to seek out Fr. Solanus's help. His superiors moved him several times to avoid a "cult of personality", but it made no difference; people travelled huge distances to see him, and he became something of a celebrity in the cities where he lived and worked.
Fr. Solanus was known for his dedication to a devotional work called The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary Agreda. This huge work, which was written in the seventeenth century and purports to have been in part dictated by Our Lady, was at one time placed upon the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books. Fr. Solanus's superiors were not wild about him recommending it so often, and they forced him to cease contact with a study group which had formed to read the book, inspired by him.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Blessed Solanus is his simplicity. When he did give his short talks, he had very little to say. Above all else, he urged people to give thanks to God, in every circumstance. His journal is filled with the words, "Deo gratias" repeated over and over again. When he was not dealing with callers to the friaries where he worked, he spent long hours in Eucharistic adoration.
Some of the background details of his life are colourful. He enjoyed playing the violin, but was notoriously bad at it-- so bad that a fellow friar once pointedly raised the volume of the radio in order to drive him out of the recreation room. He had a strange breakfast habit-- he would mash all his breakfast, including coffee and orange juice, together in a single bowl. He was a fan of the Detroit Tigers basketball team and he was "ruthless" when it came to billiards.
I was rather relieved to come across a story in which he simply laid aside the receiver, when a particularly voluble woman was seeking his counsel over the phone, picking it up every now and again to make some listening noises. At one point, he even mouthed to the people around him, "She's still talking!", to much laughter. Reading about the saints' attentiveness towards others can be intimidating; it's nice to know that even a saint can sometimes resort to such tactics.
Indeed, the Odell book is interesting as much for the insights into Capuchin life as it is for its insights into the life of Fr. Solanus. His brother Capuchins seem to have treated him as just another friar, despite being well aware of his gifts. I suppose nobody is a saint to those who live with them!
When Blessed Solanus died, in 1957, over twenty thousand people came to pay their respects to him. When he was exhumed as part of the canonization process, in 1987, his body was found to be substantially incorrupt. Miracles have continued to be reported after his death.
A final reason I love Fr. Solanus; he's a contemplative saint, saint whose outward life was very simple. Nearly all my favourite saints are contemplative saints, mystic saints. I have next to no interest in a very active saint such as St. Joan or Arc or St. Columbanus. It is saints such as St. Bernadatte, St. Gemma Galgani, and St. Solanus that fascinate me. But then, one of the glories of the Catholic Church is that, amidst all its profusion of saints, spiritualities and traditions, there's something for everybody!