What Is This Saints Business, Anyway?


Most of you have never heard of Solanus Casey.  He is being beatified tomorrow (November 18th) at Ford Field in Detroit. What does this mean?  If we were to analogize the Catholic process of sainthood to baseball it means that Father Casey has made it safely to third base.  If he scores a run, he could be the first American-born man to be recognized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  I realize, however, that most of my readers know little or nothing about the whole Catholic saints thing.  So what is this saints business, anyway?

In my prior (pre-Catholic) phase of life, I knew nothing about saints.  OK, I knew that old churches were named after them, but I knew little else.  Except that they were part of that great stew of hocus-pocus otherwise known as Catholicism.

In Catholic teaching saints are those in Heaven.  Those with the formal title of “Saint” are those we know to be in Heaven.  How do we know this?  Because their lives have been extensively investigated and we have seen proof of some kind, usually in the form of miracles attributed to the saint’s intercession.  The Catholic Church has recognized something over 10,000 men and women as Saints, although an exact number is impossible to come by.

When Catholics “pray” to saints, this prayer is to request intercession on the pray-er’s behalf, just as kids will ask the sibling who is “Mom’s favorite” to plead for mercy after Mom finds the broken vase.  Scripture assures us that the prayer of a righteous man has great power (James 5:16) and who more righteous than one already in Heaven?

There are, of course, likely to be a multitude more in Heaven than those actually declared as saints (Canonized, in Catholic-speak). Most of us have deceased friends or relatives who were wonderful, kind, holy people who lived ordinary lives but did so with heroic virtue.  Those people are very likely among the Saints, but we have no way of knowing for sure because their lives have not been examined in the way most of the formally recognized Saints have been.

In the early days of the Church, Saints were declared by acclimation.  To use a modern example, Mother Theresa was universally admired for her holiness.  Had she died before 1234 A.D., she would have been declared a Saint by popular acclimation.  The earliest formal Saint could possibly be the Good Thief on the cross (known in Catholic Tradition as St. Dismas) whom Jesus promised He would see in Heaven.  Knowledge about many early Saints is muddy because of this lack of a formal process, but in 1234 a new method for canonization was established.

* * *

In a nutshell, after someone has died a formal cause is opened in the person’s home diocese.  The deceased’s life is thoroughly examined, those who knew the person are interviewed and the person’s writings are pored over.  If the person passes muster, a “Cause” is prepared and submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.  He has reached first base.

If the Cause is accepted, the person’s life is re-examined. There is, by the way, an actual person who plays the role of Devil’s Advocate, whose job in this process is to raise doubts and questions as to the person’s sanctity.  If the would-be Saint passes this phase, he (or she) is declared Venerable.  Second base.

The next step (Beatification) requires a miracle.  Literally.  This miracle must be closely examined and verified to insure that it was something done by God and done through the intercession of the candidate for sainthood.  If the miracle passes these tests, the person is referred to as Blessed.  This step could be analogized to third base, and is where Fr. Casey stands.

The final step, the home run of canonization, requires a second miracle.  Once that second miracle has been investigated and confirmed, the Church has scored one more Saint.

So what we have here is not a situation where the Catholic Church “makes” Saints, but instead a process that is more of an investigation or judicial proceeding.  In other words, it is God who makes Saints.  The Church simply recognizes and confirms it for the rest of us.

* * *

This sterile process is all very interesting (or not), but I have found that the whole saint thing makes little sense in the abstract.  It takes looking at an individual Saint’s life to get a better handle on what it all means.  And Solanus Casey gives us a perfect opportinity to do just that.

Casey was born Bernard Casey in Pierce County, Wisconsin (a little to the southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) on November 25th, 1870.  Born into a poor family of Irish immigrants, his prospects were fairly dim.  He didn’t get much schooling and ran through a series of menial jobs.  How future Saint could come from the ranks of  lumberjack, streetcar operator, hospital orderly or guard in the Minnesota prison system is indeed a mystery.

He once proposed to a young woman, whose parents thereafter whisked her off to boarding school.  Which should tell us about all we need to know about how promising his life looked at the time.

After witnessing a murder in Superior, Wisconsin, he began to sense a call to the priesthood.  He was dismissed from the local seminary at the end of his first year because of his poor grades, and some say because of a lack of intelligence.  He sensed an urging to go to Detroit where he was taken in by the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (one of the Franciscan Orders).  Even there his poor showing in his studies resulted in his being ordained in 1904, but with limited faculties – although he would be a priest, he would not be permitted to preach or to hear confessions.

At his first posting in New York, he became the Porter – the guy who answers the front door to the Priory where the brothers lived.  This was a menial and unpopular job but he was obedient and took it on.  Slowly, amazing things began to happen.  People who showed up to see a priest left to experience healings and other amazing things in their lives.  Although Fr. Casey always insisted that it was God who did the healing, his reputation grew.  He was asked by his superior to keep a notebook of healings that occurred after his interaction with someone.   He eventually filled seven of them.

In 1924 he was transferred to St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, where he took on the same job.  Soon traffic at the front door went from six people a day to about a hundred.  The word got out that if you had any trouble or sickness in your life or among your loved ones, go see Fr. Solanus.  He would listen, offer guidance and finish with  a blessing.  The results were often simply amazing.

During the Depression he began feeding poor people out of the Monastery’s kitchen, which turned out to be Detroit’s first soup kitchen.  One, incidentally, that is still in operation.

He was transferred to the Order’s Noviate (the first place for the newbies to go) in Huntington, Indiana in 1946.  Fr. Solanus was in his 70s by then and it was hoped that he would get a respite from his grueling schedule.  But visitors found him anyway and letters poured in, something like 300 a day.


Over 8,000 people attended Solanus Casey’s funeral in Detroit.  Photo source: SolanusCasey.org


By the time he died in 1957 (of a skin disease at the age of 86), he had been credited with many miracles.  But to his fellow friars, he was just a holy but ordinary friar who sang badly when he played the violin, who loved Detroit-style coney island hot dogs and who was an avid follower of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.

This lifetime of supposed miracles was of no use in a sainthood cause and a fresh one was needed for the investigation.  It came after a Panamanian woman with an incurable genetic skin disease was visiting friends in Detroit and went to Fr. Solanus’ tomb to pray for family and friends.  While there she reported a sudden urge pray for her own situation.  She experienced a sudden and visible healing.  After examination by doctors in Panama, Detroit and Rome, their conclusion was that there was no scientific explanation for the cure (which is described in more detail in this article in the Detroit Free Press).

Blessed Solanus was a man who early in his life gave no indication that he would ever amount to anything.  That such an ordinary man can prove to be so extraordinary by little more than a humble faith and a diligence in living it should be an inspiration to us all.  Blessed Solanus, pray for us.

5 thoughts on “What Is This Saints Business, Anyway?

  1. Thank you, this fills in a few blanks. I remembered a story of a priest given limited allowable duties who would be attributed with many, good things. It’s Father Casey. His story has definitely stuck with me and will be better retained now.

    Your statement about Fr. Casey having the potential of being the first American born man to be canonized prompted me to investigate Augustus Tolton. Born a slave not far from Hannibal, MO, Tolton was the first black American to be ordained. The diocese in both Jefferson City and Springfield, Illinois, have taken up the canonization cause for Fr. Tolton. As part of this, his body was exhumed and examined in December 2016. That’s a tidbit I would not have thought about but one that does make sense. Fr. Tolton is buried in Quincy, Illinois, (near the business route as it has turned out) and he has been classified as a Servant of God.


    • I was just reading the Wiki entry on Fr. Tolton and he sounds like an amazing guy. It turns out that he attended St. Francis Solanus College, which was named after the Saint from whom Fr. Solanus took his religious name. Small world. 🙂
      We have one local saint in Theodore Guerin who founded the Sisters of Providence and St. Mary of the Woods College in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was born in France, however.


  2. An article about Father Casey took up much of the front page of the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, and I was able to say to myself “Oh, I know about him.” 🙂

    I was vaguely familiar with the concept of the steps to Sainthood, but this does a nice job of filling in the nuts and bolts of how the system works.


    • Thanks Dan. One thing I have noticed in most of the stuff written on topics like this is that Catholic sources usually (wrongly) assume that the reader knows all the basics while other sources sort of treat the process as a black box because they often don’t really understand it themselves.


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