Solanus Casey: An Example of Christian Rebuilding

Look at the life of Father Casey. Imitate him. Open the door to others. Be a porter to anyone who knocks.

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Editor's Note: EWTN will air a documentary on Father Casey Nov. 17 and show the beatification live Nov. 18. See times here and watch NCRegister.com for continuing coverage.

 

St. Francis of Assisi initially took the admonition of Christ to “Rebuild my Church” literally, and ever since that time, the order he founded has sought to rebuild — churches, families and lives — with whatever materials they possessed.

St. Francis sold all he had and collected stones to rebuild the Portiuncula. Father Solanus Casey, a Franciscan in Detroit, collected thousands of tales of woe from a suffering city and helped God to rebuild lives. Time and time again, God blesses poverty, devotion and unfettered faith and builds something beautiful.

Venerable  Solanus Casey will be beatified Nov. 18 in his beloved city of Detroit. The event confirms that we are in a time of rebuilding as a Church and society.

In the year we celebrate the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima — which, amid Mary’s dire warnings, shared a clear message of hope for a better world — we have the beatification of a simple Franciscan priest who made the world better by exemplifying Christlike simplicity, humility and love for humanity. This man, in a patched brown habit, with a long white beard and a broad Irish smile, possessed a childlike faith that, while often misunderstood, resulted in his being an effective spiritual director to those to whom he ministered. Gone 60 years July 31, Father Casey’s simplicity and compassion are sorely needed in a society riven by political and social polarization.

Bernard Francis Casey was born into a hardworking Irish-American family who struggled and suffered to build a life for 16 children. Yet, they did. Barney, as he was known to family and friends, also struggled. He was left with a weak and impaired voice due to diphtheria and went from job to job in a struggle to find his vocation. When he settled on the priesthood, the diocesan seminary in Milwaukee, with its classes in German and Latin, proved to be a bridge too far. It was suggested he join a religious order that could ordain him as a simplex priest, a priest without the faculties to preach or hear confessions. This must have been a blow to his Irish pride, and yet in prayer, he heard the soft and comforting voice of the Blessed Mother tell him, “Go to Detroit.”

The Capuchin Friars of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit would make a home for the now-Father Casey. At St. Bonaventure, Father Casey remained obscure and content. He loved to play his violin, and he did so poorly. This did not dissuade him, nor did his assignment as porter of the monastery. To be porter meant he got to minister to people. The poor would come to him — so would the sick and unemployed, especially during the Great Depression. Catholics and non-Catholics alike would come and tell their stories to the Irishman who loved a good story. Father Casey was never one to give a quick and curt answer. He responded to each person prayerfully. And miracles happened. The unemployed quickly found work. The sick were healed. Broken marriages were mended, and the desperate people of Detroit were given hope in a time of hopelessness.

A monument of Solanus’ work still stands in the midst of a recovering city: the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Solanus and his brother Capuchins worked the soup kitchen throughout the Depression. When bread ran low, Father Casey prayed for God to give us “our daily bread,” and a truck soon arrived with a donation. It was the soup kitchen and the prayer of the simplex priest that kept the flame of faith alive in desperate times.

His gaze was never just confined to home, as he would often advise those who came to him to donate for Masses for the Seraphic Mass Association, which supported the Capuchin foreign missions. The Holy Mass was always the first thing on Solanus’ mind and the greatest succor for anyone in need. Another devotion close to his heart was the holy cross. St. Bonaventure’s has a relic of the True Cross, and Father Casey would often bless the sick with this holy relic. Prayer and devotion always lift the spirits of the downtrodden.

When Father Casey died in 1957 of erysipelas, a skin disease that also claimed the lives of St. John of the Cross and Pope Gregory XVI, more than 20,000 Detroiters filed passed his casket. What did this man have to elicit such devotion, and how does his witness fit into this time of rebuilding?

Father Casey had the ability to take what was given to him and turn it into something beautiful for God and neighbor. He did so first by listening to the narrative of suffering. We don’t do this enough in our society. We are in the age of the instant reply. Quick to argue, quick to become overemotional, we need to recover the ability to listen. Only in listening was Father Casey able to discern. Discernment is also a lost art. It is a process that involves vulnerability and openness to listening for God, often through a wise spiritual father. When we are practiced at listening and discerning, we can give people a real answer to the question of suffering. Father Casey was never one for a boxed answer; as a porter, he was attentive to the request of each guest and could discern what it was they actually needed. It was these virtues that made him a master builder, taking the scraps he was given and refashioning them into a better future for all who sought his prayers. After all, isn’t this what God does for us? We are the dust of the Earth that he fashions into his own image and likeness. 

This is precisely the example we need right now. Look at the life of Father Casey. Imitate him. Open the door to others. Be a porter to anyone who knocks.

Robert Klesko is an EWTN

theology adviser.