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What I Will Take From Camden

Eleven weeks and a seven-and-a-half hour drive later, I find myself back in North Carolina for a much-appreciated week vacation before heading back to school. It’s been a great summer and a great first assignment in Camden, NJ, and there is a lot to take with me to my studies. Here are just a few things that I will take with me as I continue to be formed into a Franciscan Friar:

Adult Education

Of the many highlights of the summer, one of my favorite experiences was teaching a Bible class on Wednesday evenings. Let me be clear: this was not a “Bible study” as is common at churches. What I wanted with this class was to give the average parishioner an academic overview of the Bible so to empower him/her to be able to read, study, and pray with the text appropriately. Over eight weeks, I spanned a couple thousand years of biblical history in order to set the historical context out of which each text was written, highlighting the social and political events that greatly influenced the people of God. My bold guarantee when advertising the class was that, once completed, one would be able to open the Bible to any page and have at least the basic tools to know the context of the passage, and thus, an appropriate interpretation.

While the content of the material was something I personally understood, I had never taught it let alone organized the material into eight comprehensible sections. Could I even fill up an hour of material for eight weeks? Did I have enough knowledge of the Bible to synthesize it or field questions beyond the text? Turns out I could and I did, and I had a great experience doing it. The material will obviously need to be refined and updated as I take more courses in Scripture and theology, but it was very encouraging. My hope is to build on this experience with other adult education courses: church history, liturgy/sacraments, Catholic Social Teaching, and Franciscan history/studies.

Confidence to Preach

This photo is in no way staged.

This photo is in no way staged.

In a similar vein, I was given the opportunity to preach regularly this summer: twice a week at daily mass and two Sundays (the texts of which can be found here and here). While I had had a little experience preaching before this summer, this was actually my first time preaching at a daily mass, something surprisingly different, and more difficult, from a Sunday homily. For starters, it has to be very short and to the point. In a daily mass homily, there isn’t enough time to develop more than one point, and even with that point, not a lot of time to do it. What can I say in 3-5 minutes, that isn’t just fluff or sentiment, to really draw people into prayerful reflection today? 

Another difficult aspect of daily masses is that they happen, by definition, every day. Unlike Sunday homilies that take all week to develop, these reflections must be churned out each and every day. The plus side for seasoned priests is that the shortened length, casual nature of mass, and repetition of readings makes this very easy to be done quickly and mostly off-the-cuff. For me, having never had this experience, I found the experience to be a bit laborious at times, especially the Monday after preaching Sunday. Ugh… what am I going to say?

It is that tiny little bit of pressure, the regularity of preaching no matter the readings or context, that really helped my confidence in the long run. At first, I was very nervous and tried to memorize every word of the “perfect homily” I had written; by the end, I had a few notes jotted down and was able to speak a bit more extemporaneously. The other factor in all of this was that I preached bilingually each mass (and I don’t speak Spanish!) Although I was only reading a translation in Spanish, being able to stand in front of people and speak in a different language made preaching in my own that much easier.

Boundaries Between Work and Home

One of the potential drawbacks of living in Camden is that the friary is attached to the parish offices: 1st and 3rd floors are friars only, 2nd floor is parish offices. This creates a difficult boundary issue to navigate. Are people allowed into the friary portions, and if so, at what times? How do I “get away” from work if it’s only a few feet away? Do I have an obligation to be present ALWAYS? These are difficult questions for sure.

Here’s one example of an uncomfortable situation I faced this summer. I had been working really hard without a full “day off” in a week or so and was pretty tired. I decided I was going to take the day to just relax, prayer, and watch a movie. Nothing special, no vacation or excursion, just a recharge day. I didn’t want to go anywhere, just relax. Naturally, I get a call 20 minutes into the movie, “Hey Brother Casey, sorry to bother you, but one of our volunteers never showed and we have a student here and I’m the only adult. I can’t be here with him alone. Would you mind coming with me and we can drop him off at his house?” Was I really going to say no? Of course not. Well, there goes 45 minutes of desperately needed recharge time.

As someone devoting my life to the service of others, there is never an opportune time to take off. There will always be someone to help, and I will inevitably feel guilty for taking time for myself. I think the key is to set clear boundaries for doing so. Set a designated time or day off and publicize it to the ones being served: “If you want me to be my best to serve you at all other times, please respect this time for myself.” The other thing is to keep clear physical boundaries between work and home. At school this is tremendously difficult because my bedroom is my study room. In Camden, I can only imagine how difficult it is for the pastor to sleep in the same place where hundreds of people need him daily. As best we can, we need to set boundaries.

Take a Walk
While there are probably fifty more things I could reflect on, I’ll end with the one that I will most clearly take with me as I go back to Washington, D.C.: a walk. What I mean by this is not exercise, not a way to calm down, not breaks in study. What I take from Camden is their walks of subtle evangelization.

More than two years ago, the church was a part of a peace walk to end violence. At 6:20 that Wednesday, two parishioners left the church to catch up to the marchers and were mugged. That’s right, on the way to the peace march. In response, the friars have made it a point to walk the streets of their neighborhood every Wednesday at 6:20 for more than two years, missing only Christmas and Fourth of July.

They do not carry signs, nor do they pray the Rosary. Nothing about them is calling attention to violence or injustice. All they do is walk up and down the main street in their neighborhood, in habits, each and every Wednesday at 6:20. What I love about it is that they are a regular, vision presence in Camden. People recognize them and look for them, and for those that do not know them, they strike up conversations about who they are and what they’re doing. It is the story of Francis and a young brother: walking through the city one day, they went through the marketplace, side streets, and fields, not saying anything about Jesus. The young brother, disappointed, said, “I thought that we were going to preach today.” Francis replied, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!” It is my hope to do this always, of course, but to also make it a regular practice back in our neighborhood in D.C.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Formation, Ministry

 

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Learning to Say Goodbye

We formed some great relationships at the Jeanne Jugan residence this year.

Today was our last day volunteering at the Jeanne Jugan Residence. After more than seven months of Bingo, room visits, word games, Bible study, and the like, our time came to a close with a farewell “Berry Special Sendoff” (named for the strawberry pound cake that was served). A number of sisters, staff members, and residents came to the microphone to say some kind words, and we had the chance to walk around to all of the tables to say goodbye to the men and women that we had gotten to know so well. The whole day was quite touching, and great way to end.

As I look back on the year and wonder what effect Dennis and I may have had on the residents, I come to realize that this has been just as fulfilling and revelatory for me as it has been for them. Here are two of the things that I found helpful for my future in ministry.

I will grow to love ANY ministry 

Back in September when we were assigned ministry locations, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of working at a nursing home. Though I was open to the idea, and by no means fought it or showed any disappointment, there was certainly a part of me that wished for something else. Ugh… a nursing home?

What I came to realize was that, even though I wasn’t a part of some newsworthy effort to radically “save the world,” this ministry effected the lives of a number of individuals in a profound way, making it just as worthwhile as anything I could have done. Like the story of the person throwing back starfish into the water despite the impossibility of saving all of them, I realized that “I made a difference to that one!” and that is all that matters!

There’s no doubt that I’ll be placed in ministries throughout my life that are not my “ideal” choices. After having this experience I now know that it doesn’t matter. Every place I go there are going to extraordinary things to be done, incredible people to meet, and discoveries to be made about myself. In the end, if it’s God working through me, who am I to decide where that should and shouldn’t go? Because of this, I think it will be very difficult not to love every ministry as my own after only a short time.

No ministry is mine

This gradual love for each ministry can, however, lead to a different problem: the inability to give it up later. Transitions like the one we made today will more or less dominate the rest of our lives. As transient preachers, Franciscan friars rarely stay in one place forever. Whether it’s three, six, nine, or even twelve years, we all know that our ministry assignments will probably never be permanent, and that at some point we’ll be asked to pack up and move on.

In this way, it can be difficult to realize that no ministry is mine. More than likely a ministry existed before I got there, and most definitely will there be people left behind doing work after I leave. As attached as we may get to a particular place, ministry, or group of people, we must remember that our vocation was not to work in that specific circumstance alone; we were called to spread the Gospel wherever it needs spreading.

As I found out today, this second point is much harder than the first. Just because we live a transient lifestyle does not mean that we do not engage in deeply connected relationships; all it means is that we must cope with letting these connections go shortly after they’re developed. The important thing to remember in all this is that, no matter how difficult it may be to leave a beloved ministry now, there will always be another one prepared for us by God just up ahead. Today, I may have learned how to say goodbye to people I have come to care for greatly, but tomorrow I will begin to say hello once more to the new possibilities that this life has to offer. What a beautiful thing this is, the life of a friar.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in Formation

 

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We Are The Future

This past weekend, all of friars in pre-Novitiate, Novitiate, and post-Novitiate formation, as well as the formaters and a member of the Provincial Counsel of Holy Name Province, had a grand get together at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, MD. Known as the “Formation Intersession Program,” this three day meeting is a yearly tradition of our province that seems to fulfill three main goals: 1) To allow for fellowship and interaction between the men in formation, 2) to teach the men in formation something related to Franciscan theology beneficial for spiritual and communal growth, and 3) to inform new members of the happenings of the province, both financially and statistically, in a sort of “State of the Province” address. Overall, the weekend was excellent at fulfilling each of these goals, and with the exception of the food poisoning I got Friday night, everything went really well! (Dont worry, it wasn’t that bad and I’m completely fine now!)

Getting to know our new brothers. Unlike many of the workshops we’ve attended thus far, there was actually more “free time” on this one than anything else. With most of our afternoons and nights free, we had plenty of time to chat, go out to eat, and even watch a movie on the projector one afternoon. Given that the majority of us have had at least one common formation director or formation house, we all hit it off almost immediately because a lot of our experiences (as well as a few misfortunes!) were common among everyone. Add to it a group of very humorous, brotherly, guys, and you get a weekend long laugh-fest of stories, jeers, and rivalries fit for the friars.

Besides simply having a good time, there was a serious purpose for bringing us together: we are the future of the order. Turn the calendar ahead 20-25 years and this group of men will be very core of the province, running ministries and dictating the vision for its future. As a postulant, this can no doubt be an overwhelming responsibility to focus on right now. But at the same time, I think we all realize that its a reality in our future, and it’s comforting to know that we’ll have such a strong group of men along for the ride.

Franciscan spirituality of the Trinity. What does it mean to believe in a triune God? More times that not, do we even distinguish between the three, or do we simply think of God as a homogenous, ambiguous “being”? Such a theology would not Franciscan (or even Christian for that matter). Though being of one essence, God has revealed Godself through history and scripture as three distinct beings, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Call me dense, but until this weekend, I had never put two and two together to realize that since each one is in its own ways distinct, so too should our relationship to each person be unique: God is Father, God is brother, and God is spouse. Each requires a different approach, thus yielding a different experience of the divine.

The “mystery” that leads from this is pretty obvious: how does one God exist in three persons while still being only one God? One way of trying to explain it is the ice, water, and vapor analogy I used in my post, “I think of it like a…”: same chemical, three different forms, all of which can exist simultaneously. But from a “Franciscan” perspective, the question itself is posed wrongly: rather than how can one God exist in three persons, someone like St. Bonaventure would ask how can three persons be one? Some will say it’s the same question, but there are different implications to both. The former, starting with one and splitting into three, must focus on the existence of God, how God is, so as to understand how God can be split in three; the latter, focusing rather on three being one, must focus on the relationship of God, how the three distinct persons must be in relationship with one another in order to be one. The relationship between the three leads one to see the self-communicating love that exists with God, leading to the statement, God is good.

The “State of the Province” address. Much like the yearly State of the Union address given by the President of the United States, were given two lectures on Saturday related to the financial and personnel situations our province was facing. Obviously these sections were a bit dry with information (and obviously quite private to non-friars, so I’ll be vague), but they were also very helpful for looking at the future. It’s not a secret that the world is changing, and with it, religious life as well. There are going to be different problems our generation will face than the ones before us did, and it’s great foresight of those in leadership today to prepare us for them as early as possible. There was nothing revealed in either lecture that was a complete surprise, nor was there anything that made me develop much anxiety about the future. Altogether, it was great to be left in the loop and to have the opportunity to ask questions and begin brainstorming with other future leaders.

Given the fact that the food poisoning was a bit unexpected, I didn’t get to take a lot of the pictures I had wanted to. Also, given the internet struggles lately, it’s been difficult to even load a picture for the title of the post, but we’re working on fixing the problem soon!

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2012 in Formation

 

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Preparing For Novitiate

Talk about a full house!

Although our primary focus for being in Wisconsin last week was an interprovincial Postulancy workshop on sexuality, we enjoyed the added bonus of visiting the Novitiate house and meeting the Novices. We weren’t given a ton of free time throughout the week, but enough that we were able to hear from the Novices about their year so far, share meals with them and the Novice masters, experience their prayer style, and get familiarized with the house and grounds.

By the end of the week, I understood why the three stages of initial formation are called pre-Novitiate, Novitiate, and post-Novitiate: the Novitiate experience is clearly the center and frame of reference for the whole process. The Postulancy year, thus, is not just a waiting or trial period, it has the crucial objective of preparing men for the intense community and prayer life of the Novitiate.

So, what exactly do they do in the Novitiate, and are we being prepared well enough?

To oversimplify the concept, the Novitiate is a year of prayer, work, study, and community, in preparation for simple vows at the end of the year. The Novices in Wisconsin pray together four times a day, have class for two hours in the morning, do chores for two hours in the afternoon, and take turns cooking meals with and for each other before being allowed two hours of free time in the evenings. They are not allowed cell-phones, credit cards, or use of the internet, they’re not allowed to travel more than 15 miles away from the house, and there is a grand silence that begins at 9:30pm each night. It is through these extreme measures that the Novices are encouraged to take great steps in their prayer and community lives, freeing them from the many distractions of the outside world to focus more attentively on those things that are at the center of our lives.

And while this is necessary for a life as a friar, this lifestyle would be too much of a shock for most people right out of the gate. What would the retention rate be like if men left their old lives one day and showed up to this one on the next? Even as someone who is quite affirmed in his vocation, I would have struggled with the transition. Thus, Postulancy.

Having now seen the life of a Novice, everything (except the traveling) that we do makes perfect sense to me now, and I see that the Postulants of Holy Name Province will be as prepared as any for next year. We pray everyday as a community either twice or three times, emphasizing the importance of prayer but doing so in a bit more casual of a way; we attend class twice a week on basic Franciscan studies, preparing us not only in content but also in structure; our weekly group meetings, both as a whole house and as the formation group, keep us in touch with the needs and attitudes of the others, helping us to find our role in community; having set meals seven days a week has enforced a sense of responsibility and community; and our lack of freedom, whether it be in time off, ability to leave, use of technology during the day, limited stipends, or chores, has been taken slowly as to help the adjustment process. Taken together, the year is a stepping stone for the next, an introduction and preparation to the rigors that lie ahead.

In all reality, the hardest thing about next year will be that which we cannot prepare: living in a house with 24 other men. Because it’s an interprovincial Novitiate, we’ll be sharing the experience with at least six other provinces, having completed seven different postulant years, with seven different levels of preparedness, and 25 different personalities. I’m not sure if anything can fully prepare someone for that type of experience. Until that day comes, I look forward to living in the moment of each day as a Postulant, while always remembering what that moment is for: preparing for the Novitiate.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Formation

 

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Ecological Justice

You'd never see a sight like this where the rich live, would you?

When Catholics speak about “justice,” we tend to think about things such as the fair treatment of workers, peace, living wages, freedom from enslavement, etc. The images that come to mind are almost exclusively economic and peace related. For many, ecological justice is a secondary concern.

Attending the RFC Philadelphia region workshop today, we were convinced otherwise. Led by Sister Maria DiBello, RSM, and attended by about 30 men and women in religious formation, the workshop was in part a viewing of a documentary by the Pachamama Alliance called “Awakening the Dreamer.” After watching the documentary and listening to her lecture, it’s impossible to see how ecological justice could ever be overlooked.

One of the reasons that it deserves as much attention as the other forms us justice is that it is intimately related to the well-being of humanity and the protection of the poor. For instance, at one point, a woman on the documentary said something to the effect of, “What does it mean to throw something away? There’s no such thing as away. All we’re doing is displacing our waste to another place.” That place is almost always the home of the poor and oppressed. Pollution in the First World causes the destruction of vital resources for the already poverty-stricken Third World, dangerous water and living conditions, and leaves them highly susceptible to erratic fluctuations in climate. Lack of ecological justice, in the form of overconsumption and waste, hurts more than just the polar bears; it directly effects humanity. For a specific example, take a look at the effect of plastic water bottles.

Though the majority of the day was a reiteration of material I studied in college, I found it all to be a great reminder of the great responsibility we have to protect all of God’s creation, and how our mistreatment of it hurts us more than we think. Often times we find ourselves in the First World becoming complacent and entirely ignorant of the world around us. The truth is, what we do effects others in the world around us. When we look at the dire state of our planet in the long run, as well as the horrific effects it is causing in the present day, we can begin to see the “justice” that is needed in the world.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2011 in Formation, Justice, Workshop

 

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Adopting a Few New “Habits”

The postulancy is a year for trying on a new way of life

“The Franciscans have been wearing the same thing for 800 years, and in no way is it out of style. From the latin word habitus meaning “to put on a new way of life,” the habit is an outward symbol of an inward commitment. I will not receive one until my second year, and will not have the three knots until I take my initial vows the following year.” Sound familiar? It should! It’s been on the right side of the screen under the brown habit since I launched this blog!

I think it’s a great idea on the part of the order to a have a preparatory year such as this in which we do not receive the habit because it allows us to discern our own inward commitments a bit more before we show the world in such a physical way. This, however, doesn’t mean that we as postulants can’t begin “to put on a new way of life,” expressing the beginnings of our inward commitment by adopting personal “habits” so to speak. Here are a few of the lifestyle changes that I’ve made so far this year that I feel are both a representation of my commitment and an aid to strengthen it.

Early to bed, early to rise: It’s been a very difficult discipline, but I’ve been in bed by 11:00 almost every single night, and up by 7:00 every single morning. For those who don’t think that’s hard, remember that I’m 22, and just 6 months ago I was on the 1:30am-9:30am sleep cycle. The first week of transitioning was awful, but I’ve been okay with it since.

No more dryer for me: In an attempt to lower my carbon footprint and better respect God’s creation, I’ve decided to air-dry all of my clothes. It takes about ten extra minutes of work to hang all of them on a drying rack than than to throw them in dryer, but there is absolutely no energy used in the process. It also means that my clothes, in theory, will last longer, requiring me to buy new things less often.

Praying multiple times a day, every day: As a community, we pray in the morning at 7:30, in the evening at 5:15, and at night at 9:00. Though this isn’t exactly an optional habit to get into, it still requires an appropriate mindset for each: I could simply show up to each, or I could take a few minutes before and after the set times to prepare and reflect. I’m certainly working towards the latter, and it’s one of the best habits I’ve adopted.

Reading the Bible everyday: As a typical Catholic growing up, I didn’t read the Bible often, and the extent of my knowledge came from the readings at mass. Given that it has a couple thousand pages, it would be easy enough to label it an overwhelming task and never read any of it. But if I commit to reading a chapter or two every day, 3-6 pages a day turns into more than a thousand pages in a year. I can commit to three pages a day! So far I’ve read the Gospel of Luke, most of John, and the commentaries for both.

Clean and simple room: For those of you who know me well, this may be the most shocking habit I’m attempting to adopt. I have made my bed every day, I fold and put away clothes immediately, and I’ve put papers and books back where they go rather than letting them stack up. As I said in A Rush To Slow Down, my room is my sacred space, and part of keeping it sacred is keeping it clean. So far so good, but we’ll have to see once the year starts getting a little busier!

Obviously there are a lot more things that have changed in my life since last year, but I thought that these were the most significant. I hope that adopting these new habits with great joy will help me discern my commitment to following St. Francis’ way of following Jesus.

I won’t be able to post again until Tuesday night at the earliest as we’re heading off to the beach for a community retreat. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll check back Tuesday or Wednesday!

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2011 in Formation, Postulancy

 

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It’s Off to Work We Go

Father Ron took this picture of us yesterday

Yesterday our lives as postulants got busy. After a month of a sort of “grace period, (but of course, all periods with the friars are graced…) we were let loose from the house, sent forth into the world to minister. Three days a week, Edgardo will meet with the Legion of Mary where he will be visiting the sick and bringing communion to the housebound parishioners; Ramon and Sergio will drive up to Philadelphia to work at the St. Francis Inn where they will be serving the poor directly; and Dennis and I will be going to a nursing home in Newark to visit the sick and elderly.

Unlike most nursing homes, Jeanne Jugan Residence is a warm, inviting place where almost all of its residents are happy to be there, and there is a waiting list of a few years to be admitted. Run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order of women devoted to the sick and elderly, this home offers a dignity and respect to each of its residents that I have never seen before: there are two full-time entertainment coordinators that run games and events every day, the residents are visited on a daily basis by the sisters, the food is honestly very good, and the facilities feel more like a big comfortable home than a drafty hospital. The sisters that run the home actually take a forth vow (along with poverty, chastity, and obedience) of hospitality, vowing to never let anyone feel unwelcome or lonely, caring for those especially on their deathbed. Besides serving those who can no longer serve themselves, the sisters have a whole wing of the building set aside as apartments for more active and independent people, free to come and go as they please.

All in all, pretty boring job right? Listen to old folks ramble on about the “good ol’ days” and about how “kids these days” are ruining society, right? Yesterday, I played a card game called Tri-Virsity with three sassy women that had me on my toes and laughing the whole time (who also beat me), got a chance to go to mass, ate ribs with the residents living in the apartments, played host to a number of game shows such as “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” then rounded out the day by getting my butt kicked in Wii bowling by someone three times my age (seriously, I bowled a 223 and this old lady beat me by more than 20 pins!)

Because there’s such a range in activity levels, I’m excited to run a bible study for some, but also be a pair of ears for the lonely ones who never get visitors; play competitive card games, but also push someone’s wheelchair outside so they can get fresh air; listen to some tell me about how I’m “exactly like my grandson” or “perfect for my granddaughter” but also talk without response to others so they know someone’s with them.

For Dennis and I, work looks a bit more like leisure: we play games, we sit and talk, and we enjoy a meal together. But in the end, even though it may not be very “difficult” to do what we’re doing, does it make it any less significant for the person to which we’re ministering? If we want to uphold the dignity of all human life and foster the authentic development of all human life, I think it’s equally as important to play Wii with a lonely old woman as it is to give bread to a hungry young man. Don’t you? When I look at it this way, and realize that God needs help in many different ways, it’s pretty easy to just let go, take a vow of obedience, and minister wherever it is I’m told to go… even if that place is a nursing home.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in Postulancy

 

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