Usually, when Detroit’s Ford Field is filled with people, it’s because football fans are watching the Lions play another NFL team.
But on Saturday, Nov. 18, despite the chill and the rain, more than 60,000 people from around the country filled the domed stadium for another reason - to celebrate the beatification of their friend Father Solanus Casey, who is now just one step away from canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church.
Whether they knew him in real life (he died in 1957) or they found out about him through a story or a book, many who came to the beatification Mass spoke warmly of Blessed Solanus not just as an example of faith and a powerful intercessor, but as a true friend.
That was the case for Adrian Carlson, who made the trip from Lincoln, Neb. with his wife to be present for the beatification.
Born more than 30 years after Blessed Solanus’ death, Carlson never knew the friar in real life, but nevertheless, “I can honestly say I felt like I actually knew him personally,” Carlson told CNA.
His devotion to Fr. Solanus began in high school, when a family friend who was dying of cancer was praying for the intercession of the then-Venerable Solanus Casey. Although the family friend passed away, Carlson’s interest was piqued in the man his friend had invoked.
“What ultimately drew me to him was his humble acceptance of God’s will,” Carlson said.
“He gratefully accepted God’s will and never complained about the hardships he was given. He was always submissive to his superiors viewing them as the voice through which God chose to tell Solanus the plan for his life.”
Carlson added that he has also often “thanked God ahead of time (as Solanus would do), through intercession of Solanus Casey, for healings of small ailments for them to disappear shortly after.”
It would have been enlightening to poll the audience to see how many present at the beatification had experienced Blessed Solanus’ healing intercession in their own lives, because it seemed nearly everyone had a story to tell in that regard.
Brother Richard Merling, O.F.M. Cap., a Capuchin brother based in Detroit, had the opportunity to meet Bl. Solanus in real life when he was still a teenager and had not yet discerned whether to join the same order as the friar.
Merling told CNA that he first met Fr. Solanus at the age of 15. Merling’s brother had been in a car accident, and had a badly injured leg that the doctors were going to amputate.
Desperate, Merling’s mother brought the family to see Fr. Solanus at the St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, seeking a miracle.
“He simply said oh don’t worry, everything is going to be alright,” Merling recalled.
That was 60 years ago. Merling’s brother recovered and did not need amputation, and only recently passed away, just before Fr. Solanus’ beatification.
“He was a man of great faith, confidence and trust in God,” Merling said of Solanus. “And I think he often encouraged people to do the same.”
Also present among the crowd at Ford Field were several youngsters whose namesake is Blessed Solanus. Among them was young Solanus Leyendecker, the 10-year-old son of John Leyendecker. The entire Leyendecker crew - including seven children and one on the way - made the five to six-hour van trip all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio to be present for the beatification.
John said he first learned about Blessed Solanus after picking up a book about his life during his years as a youth minister. At the time, his wife Lisa was pregnant with their second child, and he was so inspired by Fr. Solanus’ life that he told his wife if their child was a boy, they’d name him Solanus.
“And she said you’re nuts, we are not, because that name is a little far-fetched,” John recalled. “And I said, you gotta read this book, you’ll love him.”
Halfway through the book, Lisa was also convinced that they would name their child Solanus, if it were a boy. At the same time, she discovered her family had a personal connection to the holy friar: her mother told her the story of her great-grandfather who was cured of cancer after visiting Fr. Solanus when he was stationed in Indiana.
“So my wife came home and told me if this is a boy, we’ll name him Solanus,” John recalled. The Leyendeckers had a daughter - but named their next son, who is now 10, Solanus.
When they told their son they were going to his namesake’s beatification, “he just lit up,” John said.
“It’s awesome,” John said. “We played Catholic roulette on a saint's name, he wasn’t even a saint yet, but we said we’re going to name him after this guy because he’s going to be raised to the altar one day. And here we are ten years later and in fact he is.”
Louis Solanus Santo, the young son of Josh and Beth Santo from Denver, Colorado, was also able to be present for his namesake’s beatification.
The Santos first heard the story of Fr. Solanus from a brother with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and they were inspired by the friar’s holiness and humility.
“We wanted our son to be inspired by Solanus Casey’s humility and for him to see that God uses us to do his great work no matter how big or small or role in the world may appear,” Beth told CNA.
“When we learned that Fr. Solanus’ beatification was taking place in Detroit we felt it was an incredible opportunity for our son to get to know his namesake better. We also wanted to show him the importance of our friendships with the saints, our role models,” Beth added.
“Most importantly, we wanted him to receive the special graces sure to be present at the Mass. We were blessed to be able to help our son be at this celebration and are so confident in Fr. Solanus’ intercession!”
Blessed Solanus was originally from Wisconsin, and attended minor seminary at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee. A large group of seminarians from Solanus’ first seminary made the trip from Milwaukee to be present for Fr. Solanus’ beatification.
Among them was Dr. Bill Evans, a seminarian for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., who said he found great inspiration in the life of Solanus Casey even before he entered the seminary.
Evans worked as a medical doctor before feeling called to discern the priesthood. He first learned about Fr. Solanus when he gave a presentation on the friar’s life as a youth minister.
“He just moved me to my core when I was preparing to give this talk - the fact that he was a Wisconsin man was part of it, most of it was just that he was tireless in his perseverance, he trusted God with the greatest trust and simplicity,” Evans told CNA.
“Especially in these days, young people are searching and looking and they want to know - where do I fit in? And I think Fr. Solanus must have asked himself the same thing, where do I fit in?”
Blessed Solanus worked for several years before discerning a call to religious life in his late 20s. Evans said he has “bonded” with Solanus over the fact that they both had late vocations, and he said he considers him a true friend and a powerful intercessor.
When he was young, Solanus also questioned, “God what do you want me to do?” according to Evans. “And the answer was always simple, there was no complex algorithm, it was just simple, he wanted to be holy and to touch other people and to help them find a path to holiness.”
“I don’t know if we could look for a better patron, a better friend, a better advocate in heaven than Blessed Solanus,” he said.