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.
Father Solanus spent the first fifteen years of his priesthood quietly performing his duties at friaries in Yonkers and Manhattan. He was transferred in 1921 to Our Lady of the Angels Friary, Harlem, New York, then mainly a middle-class white community. It was at Our Lady of the Angels that he first became known as a counselor and miracle worker. Visitors to the monastery soon discovered that the new porter was a patient listener who gave sound and inspiring counsel. Many would come just to speak with Father Solanus.
One of his assignments was the promotion of the Seraphic Mass Association. Capuchins used this association worldwide as a means of intercessory prayer. It was named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who near the end of his life had a vision of a seraph, a six-winged member of heaven's highest order of angels. Capuchins everywhere prayed at their daily worship for those enrolled in the association. Shortly after Solanus started signing people up, extraordinary things began to happen. Reports of spiritual and physical healings streamed in. People were being healed of all sorts of ailments-pneumonia, heart disease, memory loss, insanity, lameness, cataracts, polio, alcoholism, gangrene, and blindness, to name just a few.
In November 1923, the Capuchin superior directed Solanus to keep a record of the miracles. Eight months later, the superior transferred Casey to St. Bonaventure's in Detroit, the Midwestern Capuchin headquarters, where he could keep a close eye on the wonder-worker. In short order the new porter and his gifts attracted an ever-increasing following. Solanus began to lead a Wednesday afternoon healing service, and many people faithfully came to benefit from his prayers. For the next two decades, people from all over the world trekked to St. Bonaventure's to receive the porter's ministry.
William had long contemplated suicide. Solanus's notes do not give a reason for William's despondency, but after much suffering, he concocted a careful plan for taking his life. He would book passage on a boat traveling from Detroit to Cleveland and, as unobtrusively as possible, throw himself overboard along the way. His two sisters, who somehow got wind of his decision, kept him under close watch. Although riddled with fear for their brother, they didn't know what to do.
During this critical time, William's father died, magnifying his distress and therefore his danger. At the funeral, however, one of his sisters happened to find a pamphlet that mentioned the work of Solanus Casey. That very day she visited the priest and asked for his intercession on behalf of her troubled brother. Just four days later, the sister returned to tell Solanus that William had miraculously changed. Not only had he been suddenly released from his despair, she reported, but he was "praying, and full of hope," and making plans to go back to work.
Immediately the sisters sought the priest's prayer for another brother, who had tuberculosis. Six months later, Solanus recorded in his ledger of miracles that the man had entirely recovered from the disease.
Raymond was an eight-month-old infant afflicted in both ears with a serious infection called mastoiditis. Before the days of sophisticated antibiotics, this disease was life threatening. One evening, when the baby's fever skyrocketed, he was hospitalized. The doctor planned to perform a dangerous surgery the next morning to save his life. He would drill holes in the bone behind each ear for drainage, the prescribed treatment for mastoiditis at the time.
The infant's mother was crazed with fear, and when the hospital personnel were preoccupied, she smuggled Raymond from the building. Outside, she slipped into a waiting car, which her brother was driving, and they headed for home. Later, she told Solanus that she scarcely knew what she was doing at the time.
As they drove along the road, Raymond's mother suddenly recalled something about a priest at St. Bonaventure's who could heal people. Why had she not thought of it before? "Drive to the monastery," she told her brother.
When they arrived, she carried Raymond straight to Solanus, who sat alone in his office near the door. The priest stood and extended his arms to receive the infant while Raymond's mother told Solanus all that had happened-the disease, the planned surgery, the frantic escape. "O Father, help him," she sobbed.
Solanus handed Raymond back to his mother. He asked her to tell him the child's name and then entered it for intercessory prayer by the Seraphic Mass Association. Solanus then urged the mother to trust God and promised that he would not fail her. After that, he prayed over the infant.
"He will be better by morning," said Solanus, and at the door he assured her, almost casually, "And don't worry. He won't need an operation."
At home she placed Raymond in his crib near her own bed. She touched his little face and could feel the raging fever; then, exhausted, she fell asleep for several hours. When she awakened, she picked up the baby and pressed him to her breast. Raymond was cold and motionless. For a moment she feared that he had died. But then she felt him breathing and realized that he was in a deep sleep. Raymond seemed to be out of danger.
She and her husband whispered a prayer of thanks and then headed to tell Solanus the good news of Raymond's sudden recovery. The priest showed no surprise. When the couple tried to thank him, he told them to express their gratitude to God. The next day, the doctors examined Raymond and declared that no operation was necessary, inasmuch as he had returned to normal health.
You may wonder why Solanus has no "St." before his name. That is because the Roman Catholic Church has yet to complete the process of formally recognizing him as a saint. But he is well on his way to receiving that recognition.