Barney Casey wasn’t given much in terms of talents, to use the imagery of last Sunday’s gospel parable. He certainly wasn’t given five, and probably not two. It would be reasonable to suggest he was given less than one talent.
But unlike the poor oaf in the gospel, Barney invested that measly less-than-one talent rather well. You could say he utilized his less-than-one talent blessedly well.
Barney was born in late fall of 1870 on a farm near Prescott, Wis., in the Diocese of La Crosse. He was baptized a few days before Christmas at the parish church, overlooking the Mississippi River. Barney grew up in what he called a “one-story mansion,” with one room divided to accommodate his parents and 15 siblings. Barney’s family was Irish, and he inherited traits of storytelling, fiddle-playing and a devout Catholic faith. However, the kids only went to Mass every other week; they alternated Sundays because their wasn’t room for everyone all at once in the horse-drawn wagon. Those who didn’t go to Mass prayed the rosary at home.
When he was 17, Barney went to work as a lumberjack, then a prison guard, a hospital orderly, and a streetcar conductor in upstate Superior. His life changed one day in 1891 when his streetcar came upon a woman being attacked by a man with a knife. That abrupt, direct encounter with violence and anger led him to realize the need for a sharper focus in his life, maybe to go in a different, more clear direction. Ultimately, Barney was convinced that he should be a priest.
He entered the seminary in Milwaukee, but Barney was Irish and all the classes were taught in German or Latin. This would be a hindrance a few decades later for another farm boy, Stan Roether of Oklahoma, who struggled mightily with the language demands of seminary, but went on to ordination, missionary work and ultimately martyrdom among the people war-torn Guatemala. We’ll soon discover a significant, common element to the stories of Barney and Stan.
Barney was sent home from the seminary, but he discovered the Capuchins, a Franciscan religious order, who welcomed him. He was given the name Solanus, and while he’ll still struggled with language and his studies, he was ordained – barely. Fr. Solanus was not allowed to preach or hear confessions. That did not prove to be much of a hindrance, he preached and conveyed God’s mercy in other ways.
Fr. Solanus’ most significant contribution would come in Detroit at the Capuchin monastery. He was given the job of porter, the lowliest, some would think the most meaningless, of all jobs – answering the doorbell, accepting packages, turning away people who didn’t have any business bothering the friars.
It was the door, however, that became the touchpoint of his life. It was to the monastery door that people flocked, lining up around the block, early in the morning and late into the night – to talk with him, to request his prayer for healing, for guidance, for peace. As the Great Depression deepened, people came for food and Solanus began giving away the food intended for the friars; that is until an organized soup kitchen was established. It’s still there, two of them a few block apart, serving 1,800 meals a day. Father Solanus used to say, “I have two loves: the sick and the poor.”
Father Marty Pable, one of many Capuchins who fondly remember Fr. Solanus, recalled, “There was nothing spectacular about him. He had no charisma at all! He didn’t preach. He just had that gentleness, that love, that compassion.”
So, clearly I was wrong, at the outset when I said Barney had no talents. But Fr. Marty also was mistaken when he claimed Solanus was not spectacular. You could easily claim he had the most spectacular of talents: gentleness, love, compassion. Not to mention patience, attentiveness, persistence. He had spectacular talents that he invested wisely – no burying in the field on his part.
And his investment of his talents has been recognized by the Church: Well done, good and faithful servant! Fr. Solanus was beatified Nov. 18 in Detroit, at Ford Field. He was declared to be among the blessed; he may one day be canonized as a saint. He’s the second American citizen to be beatified within as many months. Blessed Stan Roether of Oklahoma and Guatemala was the first.
As Blessed Solanus proves, it’s not about how many talents we have, or how seemingly spectacular or lackluster they might be. But that we honor them, deepen them, share them, invest them in our lives. Our stories will be far different than that of Blessed Solanus, but the words at the conclusion of our stories could be the same: Well done, good and faithful servant!
Blessed Solanus Casey, pray for us! TL