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Solanus Casey: How an acknowledged holy man becomes “Blessed”

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Learn about this humble and inspiring American priest and the liturgy that establishes him as a beatus.

When Solanus Casey was ordained a priest by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer in Milwaukee’s St. Francis of Assisi Church on July 24, 1904, no one could have imagined that this humble man from Oak Grove, Wisconsin, would one day be recognized as a model of holiness by the Catholic Church.

And yet, that is exactly what will happen when Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints reads the decree from Pope Francis that declares him to be “Blessed” in a solemn liturgy to be held Saturday, November 18, at Detroit’s Ford Field.

In point of fact, there were probably many who were surprised that this quiet and unassuming son of Irish immigrants had been ordained at all. Earlier in his life, Father Solanus (whose baptismal name was Bernard Francis) had been a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Unable to master the German and Latin languages in which the classes were taught, he was dismissed from the seminary and told to think about joining a religious order if he wanted to be a priest. He eventually made his way to the Capuchin Franciscans, entering that community in 1897.

After completing his novitiate, the young friar returned to Milwaukee and studied at the Capuchin’s St. Francis Monastery, located at St. Francis of Assisi parish. Following his ordination, Father Solanus was assigned to parishes in New York and to the Capuchin monastery in Huntington, Indiana, before being sent to St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit. Those language difficulties that had haunted Father Solanus during his days as a seminarian led to his being ordained as a “simplex” priest, meaning that while he could celebrate Mass, he was not granted the faculties to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation, or to preach in public.

And so, he spent the remainder of his life at St. Bonaventure’s, serving as a porter for his religious community, welcoming guests and the poor, and praying for those who came seeking prayers and support. This was a remarkably humble position for a priest to fill — his immediate superior was often a lay brother, which would have been considered highly unusual in those years.

Father Solanus died in Detroit’s St. John’s Hospital on July 31, 1957. The cause for his beatification was opened in 1976 after numerous favors were attributed to the friar’s intercession. On May 4, Pope Francis officially approved a miracle attributed to Father Solanus, clearing the way for his beatification.

While dozens of members of Father Solanus’ Capuchin Franciscan Order have been canonized and beatified, including Lawrence of Brindisi, a Doctor of the Church, and the celebrated  “Padre Pio” of Pietrelcina, there are only 19 men and women of the United States honored as saints.

Solanus Casey will join Blessed Stanley Rother as being the only men born in the United States to be beatified, bringing the number of American beati to six. Blessed Stanley, who was born in Oklahoma in 1935 and martyred in Guatemala in 1981, was beatified on September 23.

The beatification liturgy will not only be a celebration of the life and legacy of Fr. Solanus Casey—who will become known as Blessed Solanus—but it will be an official recognition by the Church of what countless faith-filled Christians have known for decades: Solanus Casey was a holy man.

“People recognized him as holy. They recognized it before ecclesiastical authorities did,” reflects Father Edward Foley, a member of Solanus’ own Capuchin Order. In fact, there were more than 10,000 people at his funeral. “We ordinarily bury Capuchins in a pine box,” Father Foley continued, “he was buried in a steel coffin because they knew something was going to happen.” That remains of Father Solanus were transferred to the Solanus Casey Center in 1987 to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims who visited his tomb each year.

“He had a very simple approach to holiness. He was the most unpretentious person. When he went back to Detroit during the Depression, he would give away his lunch. He was a slight guy and they would say to him, ‘Father Solanus, you can’t give your food away,’ but that was how he and another Capuchin began the Capuchin Soup Kitchen,” Father Foley observed. Today the soup kitchen ranks as the largest private charity in the state of Michigan.

Nearly 70,000 people are expected to take part in Saturday’s beatification liturgy, including Archbishop Allen Henry Vigneron of Detroit, Cardinal Adam Maida, retired archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, himself a Detroit native, the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and Father Mauro Jöhri, Minister General of the Capuchin Order. Concelebrating the liturgy will be more than 350 bishops and priests, and nearly 350 Capuchin Franciscan friars from throughout the world are expected to attend, as well.

Father Foley, who chaired the liturgical committee for the liturgy and who will be directing the music during the liturgy, noted that the Mass will be a vigil for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time and the proper ceremonies for the beatification will take place following the Penitential Act, before the singing of the “Glory to God.” During that time, a decree from Pope Francis—declaring that Solanus Casey is “Blessed”—will be read in Latin and English, an image of the new beati will be solemnly unveiled, and a relic of then-Blessed Solanus will be presented to Cardinal Amato by the Panamanian woman whose healing through the intercession of Father Solanus was recognized as miraculous by Pope Francis. Accompanying her will be representatives of the Capuchin Franciscans as well as other women and men who believe that they have also received special favors through the intercession of Father Solanus.

“It strikes me that it’s a wonderful model of holiness that you don’t have to be educated or an ecclesiastic,” Father Foley observed. “He was a very, very simple guy. I think for the Capuchins he underscores that the Capuchin vocation is to be fratres minores—’little brothers.’ And he was a little brother.” Looking beyond his own Capuchin community, Father Foley concluded, “To have this kind of touchstone of holiness in a community, in an urban center, in a multi-ethnic community, and in a city that has really struggled with its urban identity, this beatification is a wonderful gift to simple folks, to people of all kinds.”

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