Perhaps when we are dealing with saints, humble ceases to be a comparative adjective. When a person always takes the lowest place, who can be lower? When a person makes him- or herself the servant of all, who can compete? By definition, saints are superlatively humble.
The outline of Solanus Casey's life traces the pattern of biblical humility. From childhood to death, he lowered himself, serving everyone around him.
By human standards, he started his priestly service as a complete failure. He held the same menial job for forty years. He never owned anything. As far as the world was concerned, he was unimportant. By spiritual standards, however, he was extremely successful. Tens of thousands benefited from his personal counsel and his miracles. Solanus Casey was one of the most prolific wonder-workers in Christian history. When he died in 1957, he was internationally famous. In one and a half days, twenty thousand people filed past his casket to say farewell to their beloved friend. One of his miracles had touched each of them in some way.
Solanus would have brushed off my high praise, if he even understood it. Every miracle amazed him. He saw each one as God's work, not his. He wept in awe with those who received miraculous healings. He never thought of himself as a miracle worker; he rarely thought of himself at all.
By age twenty-one, Barney Casey--one of the mainstays of his large Midwestern family--had already worked as a farmhand, lumberjack, brick maker, prison guard, motorman, and streetcar conductor. Then, in 1891, he witnessed a tragedy that set his life on a new course.
One cold, rainy afternoon as his streetcar rounded a curve in a rough part of town, it nearly hit a crowd of people gathered on the tracks. He brought it to a screeching halt, disembarked, and pushed through the crowd. But Barney was not prepared for the grisly scene he found there. A young, drunken sailor stood cursing over a young woman he had raped and stabbed repeatedly. The memory of this violent incident was seared in Barney's brain. He began to pray daily for the girl and the sailor, and then he felt that he must also pray for the whole world. He gradually came to see this event as a type of the evil afflicting all human beings. From that time, young Barney searched his soul for a way he could be of greater service in the world. Finally, he decided he could best use his life to help others by becoming a priest. That very year he entered the seminary of the diocese of Milwaukee.
Frustrated but not defeated, Casey entered the Capuchin order in 1896. The Capuchins were a branch of the Friars Minor, which St. Francis founded in the thirteenth century. In 1897, Barney completed his novitiate at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, Michigan. As was their custom, the Capuchins gave him a new name, placing him under the patronage of St. Francis Solanus, a seventeenth-century missionary. From that time Barney was known as Solanus Casey. He spent the next seven years studying at the Capuchin seminary in Milwaukee. As at the diocesan seminary where he first began his studies, his books were in Latin and his classes in German.
In 1902, failure threatened Solanus again because some of the seminary professors were opposed to his ordination. But Father Anthony, the elderly seminary director, championed him. "We shall ordain Father Solanus," he said, "and as a priest, he will be to the people something like the Curé of Ars." St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, had been an extremely poor student but became a great confessor and wonder-worker. Little did the old priest realize how prophetic his words were.
When the time came for ordination in 1904, however, the seminary chose to limit Casey's priestly ministry. They decided he would be a "simplex priest"-he could not administer the sacrament of penance or preach formally. Nor could he wear the hood from which the Capuchins took their name. These restrictions would have shattered others, but Solanus seems to have accepted them peacefully.
During the fifty-three years of his priestly ministry, Father Solanus Casey never heard a confession, preached a mission, or conducted a retreat. He spent forty of those years as a porter, answering the door and greeting visitors to the monastery. That humble service provided the opportunity for his phenomenal career as a spiritual adviser and wonder-worker. Had he been given the full faculties of an ordinary priest, thousands might have been denied the graces of his friendship.