In the Letter to the Hebrews the author states that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. This is a reference to the saints who are all around us, both seen and unseen, but especially those already at the great banquet in Heaven. They are witnesses because they dedicated their lives to Jesus and to living the gospel message. Not only do we have a vast array of holy ones who are already canonized or in process of being officially named a saint, but we have the unrecognized men and women with whom we ‘rub elbows’ and who might seem so ordinary that we never stop to think of them as such. Among the saints recognized by the Church there are those whose story has stood out, inspiring many. But there are also holy ones who are overshadowed not only in life, but are eclipsed in death by the well-known saints. Such is the humble Capuchin friar named Fr. Solanus Casey, (1870-1957), not yet canonized, but whose cause is still in process. This man dealt with the humiliation of being thought of as ‘not smart enough’ and therefore was a doorkeeper for a good deal of his religious ministry. Despite this designation, his intercession was responsible for many healing miracles during his lifetime. On the liturgical calendar he is overshadowed by St. Ignatius of Loyola; they both died on the same day, and therefore share a feast day.* But I think Fr. Solanus would be more than just a little okay with that because humility was the basis of his holiness. He was immersed in grace and he called others into that same grace.
Fr. Solanus Casey was the first American-born man declared ‘venerable,’ a term which means he lived a life of heroic virtue and holiness and that there is a case for canonization being considered. He was born to Irish immigrant parents as Bernard Casey in a small town in Wisconsin, 6th of 16 children. He was an ordinary young man, and at some point decided he felt a call to the priesthood. Unfortunately seminary classes in his diocese at the time were taught in German and Latin and so he was unable to do well. It was suggested that he might do better in a religious order, so he applied to enter the Capuchins, an order of Franciscans known for work with the poor. Given the name Solanus, he had a similar problem there; unable to do well because of the German and Latin, he struggled terribly. He was observed to be a deeply spiritual man so they allowed him to be ordained as a ‘priest simplex,’ which means that he could preside at Mass, but would not be given the faculties to hear confession or to preach. In other words, he had to live with the humiliation of being regarded as not smart enough to function fully as a priest.
The ministry for which Fr. Solanus is most remembered was his time as porter (doorkeeper and receptionist) at the Capuchin monastery in Detroit. He also said Mass every Wednesday for the sick, a Mass that was usually overflowing. It is reported that many felt that the cures they or their loved ones received were the result of his prayer. Fr. Solanus, however, felt that the miracles had nothing to do with him, but rested solely with the grace and mercy of God. Many recounted that when they met with him, he exuded a peace and calm that would make them feel that they had his entire attention, even if there were lines of people waiting to see him. It seems that even though he had to live with the humiliation of being a lowly doorkeeper, he found the road to holiness on the path which was laid before him by God.
Fr. Solanus once said, “We are continually immersed in God’s merciful grace like the air that permeates us.” It seems that he understood that grace is a gift which is offered to each one of us and that someone as seemingly ordinary as he could grow because of such a gift. He was not at all a stupid man, yet he was able to come to peace with the label of ‘simplex priest’ because he learned to recognize that it does not matter if we have recognition or not, and it does not matter if we are on the road we hoped for or not. Rather, what matters is that we are on the road God intended for us, and that we realize that He is with us. Every road, even the one which we do not want to tread, or which might be fraught with suffering, has importance and value. On every road we meet fellow travelers whose lives we might be able to touch with a simple kindness, or even a heroic deed, although we will not know what we will be called to do until we get there.
Fr. Solanus teaches us that no act or service is too lowly to be used by God. Something as simple as being a porter can put us in the path of the suffering or lonely. Through prayer we can immerse in the grace of God which is offered to us continually, and grow gradually in holiness. According to his biographers, Solanus did not become holy on the day of his entrance into the Franciscans, nor did he become holy at ordination. He did not even become holy on the day they sent him to be a porter. His holiness came with a lot of inner work, much prayer, and some suffering. He had to allow grace, which he came to see is “like the air which permeates us,” to work on him so that he could conquer his anger at the humiliation leveled upon him, and so that he could move past his sensitivity to criticism.
The most important word in the phrase ‘becoming holy’ is the first one: becoming. Though some saints are perceived as having been born with a tendency toward holiness, all had to work hard at growing into the acceptance of their flaws and in the obedience which opens hearts to complete trust to the Lord. Therefore, growing in holiness is a process of becoming that will look different for everyone. No matter what it is we do, no matter where it is we have come from, each one of us can take the stuff of our daily life and allow it to become the road to holiness. The (opening) quote from Hebrews seems to describe the process Solanus went through: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us….” (Hebrews 12:1) Like Solanus we will need to recognize the obstacles which are part of our personality, our wounds and failings, and allow God to transform them. Once we acknowledge that we need God for this process to take place, and that we trust Him to take our frail gift of self and transform it, God will do it. This recognition leads to humility; once we get to that point, we also become more reverent toward the presence of God within our own poverty, toward God’s presence in others, and then are filled with gratitude that God would offer so many gifts of grace to each and every one of us.
Fr. Solanus teaches us that the ability to see oneself as flawed and in great need of God’s help means to step out of God’s way so that He can give what is really needed rather than what we think is needed. Part of the process, however, is coming to see that God loves us so much that despite our weaknesses we are loved deeply and are of great value to Him. Further, we need to realize that we are not alone in this: all people are loved abundantly and are of great value to God. In other words, holiness is possible for anyone who seeks it and has a willingness to work with God. As Fr. Solanus indicated, all we have to do is breathe in the grace of God, accepting the gifts He offers so that we might affect the world which is in such need of God’s touch. Our prayer, little works of kindness, service, forgiveness toward those who have hurt us, efforts at reaching out to the suffering or poor, self-control when we want to lash out, desire to be more Christ-like, and our perseverance in trials; all these things do make a change in our world, regardless if it is visible to us or not. And like Fr. Solanus, our prayer is effective, especially if we trust in our God to whom we address it. Let us never stop praying for ourselves or for our world, immersing ourselves in God’s merciful grace, so that we can bring others into that mercy and grace too.
May we persevere in prayer, no matter what our trials, so that we may grow in relationship with Jesus! May we be inspired by Fr. Solanus so that with the help of God’s grace we may move against designations or labels which might otherwise hold us down! May we ask the intercession of Fr. Solanus for those who have lost the ability to respect themselves or others because of a wounded perception of who they are before God! May we become immersed in God’s grace so that we might work for peace in our world! May we trust the great cloud of witnesses to intercede on our behalf! And may we grow in our desire for holiness, working with God in the process of becoming who He truly created us to be! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* St. Ignatius of Loyola is on the liturgical calendar (and not Solanus Casey) because Fr. Solanus is not yet a canonized saint; he is considered “Venerable” and needs a recognized miracle performed through his intercession that occurred after his death to be beatified and given the title “Blessed;” and then one more miracle after that is needed in order for him to be canonized as “St. Solanus.” St. Ignatius is already canonized and therefore will supersede Solanus for the time being. So if you have a need, (especially for physical healing), or know someone who does, pray to Fr. Solanus for his intercession and maybe we can help him along!
Here are some sites with information on Fr. Solanus, all of which I used for my research into him:
NOTE: Next post - August 15
IMAGES:The first painting is a fresco called Paradise, by Giusto de Menabuoi, (1376). It is in the dome of the Baptistery in the Padua Cathedral in Padua, Italy. It depicts Jesus surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that is, the saints. I chose this because I loved how there seem to be countless holy men and women surrounding Jesus, as if emanating from Him and flowing outward to the viewer. I also love that directly beneath Him and also the largest saint in the fresco is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the most prominent of all the saints.
The second work is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Venerable Solanus Casey The Healer. I love that with one hand he is ladling soup to give to the poor and the other is in a gesture of blessing, pointing upward to Mary who appears to be depicted as Our Lady of Sorrows. (See Fr. Bill's icon Our Lady of Sorrows at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-sorrows-028-william-hart-mcnichols.html.) Fr. Solanus knew sorrow in living with the designation as 'simplex priest,' an insult which was always with him because of how it limited him in his priestly ministry. Yet he attained holiness because he persevered, allowing God to design the path to holiness which he trod. I like that his hand is in a gesture of blessing, which reminds us of his intercession for the sick and the many miracles which were attained through his prayer. Click here to go to the page with the Solanus Casey icon: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/venerable-fr-solanus-casey-the-healer-038-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Third is a photo I took while in New Mexico. The variety of clouds in this photo reminds me of the grace of God which is "like the air which permeates us." The clouds in the foreground are on the move, and almost seem to be moving in the photo. The one in the background seem static, a great cloud which paints the sky as if totally immovable. God's grace is like that: it is dynamic and moves us to action, but God Himself is a rock of stability upon whom we rest.
Next is a photo I took in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the main driveway of St. Joseph on the Rio Grande Catholic Church. This bush was exploding with yellow flowers and I could not help but be amazed at the exquisite color. I chose this photo because I thought of what the same bush must look like when it is not blooming. It is probably an ordinary green, similar to other bushes, yet when it goes through the transformation brought upon by blooming, it erupts into color. This is what the process of becoming can be like for us: we can seem to erupt with holiness, but we have to go through the process of becoming to get there.
Last is a painting by Vincent Van Gogh called A Wheat Field with Cypresses. I chose it for two reasons. The first is that I loved the effect of the wind and clouds that are clearly making the wheat, and even the evergreen tree, sway. But the second reason is that this was painted while Van Gogh was in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum near Arles, France. Van Gogh knew he was flawed and yet he worked incredibly hard to overcome his mental issues: he voluntarily became a patient there. And he considered this one of his best summer paintings, perhaps because it represented the fruit of his labor, both his inner work and his art. Click here for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_Field_with_Cypresses
Heart Speaks to Heart