As the Catholic Church celebrates what some have called a renewed “Franciscan Moment,” thanks in large part to the pastoral and relational tone being set by Pope Francis, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity feature Solanus Casey, beatified on November 18, 2018, at Ford Field, Detroit, MI. Brother Jason D. Graves, Capuchin Friar of the Province of St. Joseph, responds to questions about this saintly member of his fraternity.
Tell us a little bit about Solanus Casey, a member of your province.
Bernard Francis Casey was born on November 25th, 1870 in Oak Grove, Wisconsin. The sixth of eleven children, Bernard worked several odd jobs in his youth until, after witnessing a brutal murder while working as a trolley car driver in Superior, Wisconsin, he decided to pursue a vocation to the Catholic priesthood. Initially he enrolled at St. Francis Minor Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but due to some difficulty in understanding both Latin and German, the languages seminary classes were taught in at that time, Bernard eventually left the school with the suggestion to seek out a religious order. Upon receiving divine instruction from our Blessed Mother, Bernard was told to seek out the Capuchins in Detroit, Michigan. He joined the Capuchins in 1897, took the religious name Solanus, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Throughout his nearly six decades as a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, Solanus Casey served primarily in the ministry of Porter, the doorkeeper of the Capuchin monastery. Because of this, Solanus was the first person visitors would meet upon arriving at the monastery. This is how Solanus was able to meet, counsel, and touch the lives of so many people. This ministry was often reserved for lay brothers; Capuchins who were not ordained to the ministerial priesthood. Because of his perceived struggles with his studies, Solanus was ordained a “simplex priest.” The simplex priest was able to offer the Mass, but was not thought to have a strong enough grasp of theology to be able to preach a doctrinal homily, or to hear confessions. Solanus was never known to complain or grumble about his “lesser state.” Rather, he performed the ministry of porter in such a way that he revealed the love of God to many thousands of people.
What can you share about Solanus’ letters?
Not long after his death, a book was compiled containing many of the letters Solanus sent during his vast ministry of correspondence. These letters so deeply touched the lives of those he sent them to, that the recipients held on to the letters for years, and in some cases decades, eventually turning the letters over to those who were championing Solanus’ cause for Sainthood. While in his time Solanus was not considered to be “book smart,” his letters reveal a deep understanding of the human person. He writes to people concerning their doubts and their concerns, as well as their joys and their triumphs. His ability to connect with people on such a personal level would have undoubtedly made Solanus a great confessor, had he been allowed to function in that capacity.
What gives your heart joy about the coming Beatification of Solanus?
It gives me such joy to see the Church recognizing Solanus as someone who was able to probe the very depths of the human person, to connect with someone on the most basic human level, and to be with the poor and the suffering, as well as the rich and rejoicing. Many of Solanus’ letters have a common theme, one that has become his hallmark: thank God for all that God has done, all God is doing, and all God has yet to do. Solanus’ message of thankfulness is as needed and relevant today as it was 100 years ago; perhaps even more so.
Is there any one of Solanus’ quotes that you feel is especially significant?
“Ask, seek, knock.” These words greet pilgrims at the beginning of their visit to the Solanus Casey Center, not just because they hold great significance in our Gospel tradition, but because they provide a rich imagery of how Solanus often encouraged others to relate with God. In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told to ask, and we shall be given an answer; seek, and we shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened. This signifies a proactive approach to our relationship with God. We are the seekers, the ones who wish to draw closer to God. Pilgrims visit the Solanus Casey Center not just because they wish to learn more about Solanus Casey, but because they wish to draw closer to God; the one to whom all Saints point. Solanus always encouraged others to approach God in a spirit of thankfulness and praise.
How did being a Franciscan Friar challenge Solanus every day?
“Thank God ahead of time” has become one of the phrases most closely associated with Solanus, as has the moniker “Blessed be God in all His designs.” We do not simply passively sit around and wait for God; we seek God with open minds and open hearts, in a spirit of thankfulness and praise. This is perhaps the most enduring legacy of our brother Solanus: in a world where there is so much darkness and despair, where so many people long for hope and light, Solanus encourages us toward the source of all goodness, in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. Solanus entreats us to remember the poor and the outcast, and to care for one another as God cares for us. This is what we celebrate in the beatification of Solanus Casey; not just the humble man who touched so many lives, but the message of hope he provides for the Church and for the world, today, and for generations to come.
Br. Jason D. Graves, OFM Cap. is a Capuchin Franciscan Friar of the Province of St. Joseph. He currently serves as a Transitional Deacon at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he also serves as Assistant Vocation Director for the Province of St. Joseph. A native of Hazel Park, Michigan, Br. Jason grew up hearing the story of Solanus Casey, and was so moved as to take Solanus as his Confirmation name. As Br. Jason prepares for his presbyteral ordination in 2018, he is honored to be able to share the story of Father Solanus, and he remains confident that Solanus will continue to inspire others, just as Solanus has inspired him.