Every year in formation, the Franciscans of my province host an event called “Intersession,” a meeting of all levels of formation between the sessions of school for a workshop and time for fellowship (hence intersession and not intercession). Without school or ministry on our minds and removed from our normal routines and comforts, it’s usually a welcomed time of intentional fraternity, prayer, and good ol’ fashioned doing nothing.

In that respect, this year was no different. From Thursday until Sunday, I spent time with the postulants, novices, and simply professed friars, catching up on how their year was going, playing games, staying up too late, and eating more than I would normally like. Basically, what you do on intersession. And it was great.

And yet in another respect, although I had attended it three times previously, this week seemed completely unrecognizable to me.

For starters, it was the first ever interprovincial intersession (gotta love religious jargon…) Instead of hosting it at a retreat center somewhere in Maryland or Pennsylvania like usual, everyone flew out to the tundra of Chicago’s Mundelein  Seminary, and instead of consisting solely of formation students from Holy Name Province, we invited all formation students from all US provinces to attend. Yeah, this was going to be different. Even though some of the provinces were not able to send all of their guys because of the distance, our group of normally 10-15 swelled to 31, not including formators and directors. That’s a significant group.

And a young one at that. For the first time in my friar life—I repeat, for the first time—I attended a gathering of friars and I was not the youngest person. Eight people were younger than me, making me not only “not the youngest,” but in fact outside the youngest 25%! How did that happen?? I was pleasantly surprised at this enormous breath of fresh air, and felt a clear difference in the dynamic of the group. Instead of simply sitting around and talking or watching a movie each night (like normal, and not bad at all), guys played animated board and card games, made a heck of a lot of noise, and even (and no, this is not a mistake), organized a four-on-four basketball game in the on-campus gym. First time for everything, I suppose!

But beyond all that—and those things were certainly significant—the thing that struck me the hardest was looking around and realizing that I was the most senior class in attendance. Like my words in I’m On Deck last year, I realized that “there is no one in front of me.” As young as I am, as unprepared as may feel at times, in this gathering, there was no one with more experience in formation than me. With a small handful of others, I was an upperclassman, someone now 4-5 years removed from the experiences of the new guys and the one answering all the formation questions rather than asking them. I was attending my last intersession.

Like so many moments throughout this year so far, it was a moment of pause . . . of reflection . . . of anxiety . . . of comfort . . . of joy. While my regular day-to-day life of being a friar is not considerably different now, nor will they be much different after I profess my vows, these moments remind me how far I’ve come so far and how far I plan to go in the future.

The view from the top is always the clearest, and only makes sense after the long journey to get there.

Five years ago Saturday, as a newly received postulant, I attended the solemn vow ceremony of two of our brothers. Having just entered a few days earlier and being at the very beginning of my six-year journey of formation, I was deeply moved by that experience:

“It’s hard to imagine that six years ago, these two men were in my position, postulants, young and new to the order, attending some other friars’ solemn profession. It’s kind of cool that one of the first things we do is attend this ceremony because it gives us a glimpse of the ‘finish line,’ so to speak.”

From day one (or four) I was looking to the future at what would one day come: myself in their place, lying on the floor during the litany of the saints preparing to permanently vow my life to God in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. At that time, being as new and far off as one could be, the experience was powerful yet safe, a distant vision that was little more real than a dream.

This Saturday, I found myself sitting in the exact same pew for the exact same ceremony… with a very different reaction. What I was witnessing was not some far off goal, a “finish line” from the view of someone on lap one, it was an imminent reality just before me, the finish line from the perspective of someone who has run the race and knows that they are almost there. The men before me were not just “some friars” years ahead acting as a generic example for my future; having lived with each of them for two years, they were my classmates, my housemates, and my friends. I knew what they were going through and I knew what had gotten them to where there were, but maybe most significantly to me, I knew that I was next.

It was at the moment, sitting in the very pew that had given me the image of running a race to the finish, that I was struck with a new image: I’m now on deck. All at once it became real to me that there is no one in front of me. With no one on and no one out, I better get my helmet and bat because I’m going to be hitting next. Just as I had watched them last year go out on internship year, be evaluated and voted on, sign formal documents with more weight than any documents they had ever signed in their lives, and finish their discernment with a final one-month long retreat, I knew that all of that was upon me now.

How did this make me feel? Exactly like being on deck in baseball, actually: a little nervous, but wanting nothing more than to be at the plate. When you’re sixth in the order, you know that you’re going to get up eventually but there’s no pressing need to be ready. When you’re on deck, things are very real. Nerve-racking, but also so very exciting. No one wants to be sixth in the lineup, they want to be hitting. I knew a year before I even entered that this life was for me and have not doubted that feeling for a minute, and I can’t wait to make that decision official, with family, friends, and friars present. For five years it has been a far-off goal. Now, I’m ready to hit.

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Congratulations to George, John, and Egdardo

Shortly after the end of the school year in May, a fellow seminarian at Catholic University posted a picture on his Facebook of a large pile of books, evidently his reading list for the summer. Piled more than ten high, the ambitious stack had some great books about the liturgy, history of the Church, and popular expressions of Catholicism in today’s world. Objectively speaking, it was a great collection and I’m sure he benefited greatly from it.

And yet, I couldn’t help but shiver when I saw it.

Despite the wide variety of topics and perspectives, his stack was all the same: academic, theological, non-fiction. They could have just as easily been his textbooks for the following year of seminary, all packed with information for study, meant to fill the mind with thoughts and facts and ideas.

At face value, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. As Catholics, we know that God gave us the ability to reason and understand Godself and the world, and so are not afraid of intellectualism or study in faith. Thoughts and facts and ideas are incredibly important to our faith, and I plan on attending two more years of seminary to engage them more deeply.

But there is a reason that I shivered when I saw this picture (and, no, it’s not just because my brain is fried after three years of full-time graduate study.) While God certainly gave us a mind to reason and understand, God also gave us a heart to feel and a spirit to imagine. After three years of seminary training in which I’ve read dense books on philosophy, theology, Church history, and pastoral care, I’ve realized that there is something desperately missing from my life and formation: fiction. Where are the novels? Where are the short stories, plays, poems?

For some, such things are often seen as more leisurely, “softer” activities one does in one’s free time or when one needs a break from “real” studying. For others, fiction is simply a waste of time altogether when one could be learning about “something that actually happened.” I couldn’t disagree more. Just because works of fiction do not contain many—if any—details that are factually accurate does not mean that they are devoid of truth. In many ways, I would argue quite the opposite: novels use lies to tell the truth (paraphrase of Alan Moore, V for Vendetta). Using characters, places, and situations that do not exist in our world, writers use their imaginations to speak profoundly about the human existence in a way that biographies and treatises simply cannot.

It is with the use of this imagination—the ability to dream and believe and create—that writers help so many see beyond the mundane happenings of life and into the transcendent experience of God. Even when works of fiction do not convey an immediate or underlying Christian message, the reader is offered a glimpse into the transcendent simply because s/he is experiencing beauty. The eloquently chosen words on the page, the palpable emotion flowing from the actors, the disturbing/inspirational/unbelievable/mesmerizing images that the writer evokes are all gateways into God if the reader allows it.

What fiction lacks in historical accuracies is often more than made up for in what it reveals about the human experience. I think of the incredible precision with which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, telling such an emotive and visually packed story with so few words; I think of how terribly defeated I was after reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as if it had been me who had had all of my hopes and dreams crushed and cast aside; I think of how taken away I was by the imagery and storytelling of Yann Martel in Life of Pi, as if I were sitting at the feet of a wise old master telling about his life (which does not make me a Hindu relativist, fyi…) These stories moved me. They touched me. They evoked something in me that, despite being about people and events that never took place, helped me to relate to and understand the world in a new way.

That is what I want to recapture this year as I take a break from formal studies. While Karl Rahner, official papal documents, and classical treatises are certainly useful and have been fruitful in many aspects of my life, and I will most certainly not abandon them completely as I will be teaching many classes this year, having to read hundreds of pages of them each week has left a major imbalance in my life that needs fixing.

And fixed it will be.

Starting just after the road trip in May, I began to reread my favorite series of all-time, Harry Potter (it took me only 25 days to read all seven books… That is an emotional roller coaster I do not recommend!) Over the summer in Mexico I read The Little Prince in Spanish. And upon arriving here in Durham I signed up for a library card and checked out my first two books within twelve hours of arriving: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, two collections of short stories.

Like my friend from seminary, my stack of books is quickly piling up as I try to fit as much in as I can, making up for the lost time during school. And even though our stacks look completely different and it would be easy to say that our goals are quite different, I don’t think they are. Both of us, in our own ways, are seeking to know God and God’s people better so that we can be better ministers today and in the future. The difference is a matter of perspective: while he has chosen to read books about God and God’s people, I have chosen to read books that help me experience God and God’s people firsthand. Now that’s a novel idea.

There is one Spanish phrase that I have used more than any in my three weeks here in Mexico. No, it’s not “See you later”; thankfully, it’s not “I need a bathroom, fast”; but unfortunately it’s not “Thank you for the beer.” No, of all the phrases that I have used on a regular basis, the one phrase that I use more times per a day than I care count is, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

As you can imagine, this is a a frustrating thing to have to say on a number of different levels.

The first, quite simply, is that it sucks to be dumb. For someone who has always done well in school, has a fairly good grasp of the English language and is more than comfortable expressing personal and complex thoughts and feelings, to routinely have to say that “I don’t understand” and ask that they repeat themselves more slowly is humiliating. If, by chance, they are patient enough to speak to me like a small child—only adding to the feeling of inadequacy—I’m likely to understand the gist of the question or comment, but am left with another dilemma: What do I say in return? “Yes, I like cheese,” or “I am from the United States,” or “I need food.” Simple, direct, and extremely limited in expressing any sort of complexity or affect. So often I find myself wanting to say something just beyond the ordinary—a wish, a conditional statement, something with subtlety—but have to filter my ideas through my vastly inferior speaking ability.

And for casual conversations, this sort of embarrassment or frustration is to be expected, and most of the volunteers are helpful enough to make every conversation a teaching moment rather than get frustrated with me in return. But what about in conversations with the migrants, those who find themselves in great physical, emotional, and spiritual need? When a volunteer asks if I have seen such-and-such a person but I don’t understand the question, there’s really no problem; when a migrant asks me where they can get some food, tells me about their home country, or seeks help about some issue they have, to stare back at them blankly, request that they speak slower, and repeatedly have to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” it’s a different story. I feel stupid, yes, but often they do too. For some, my inability to understand them looks poorly on me as a student of the language (which is fine), but for others, the experience only furthers their feelings of doubt and alienation. “You don’t understand me?” It’s not about the language, per se, but feelings of inadequacy, feelings of being unintelligent, feelings of not being understood by others.

It’s a complex situation and I have mixed feelings about my experience thus far. On the one hand, there is tremendous benefit to being put in such a vulnerable situation, stripped of my confidence and forced to feel as so many do everyday. It is truly a “minor” position, and even if the conversation yields no tangible results for either party and I don’t necessarily grow in my Spanish-speaking ability, it is an experience worth having. On the other hand, though, there is definitely a sense that I would benefit more under controlled conditions, speaking to people who are not so vulnerable themselves, and who, frankly, are able to annunciate and articulate themselves in a simple enough way for me to grasp what is going on. (People from one country in particular are almost impossible to understand, even for the Mexican volunteers. For example, in one conversation this morning, one women said “De-SAY.” After a few seconds of confusion, I realized that what she was saying was dieciséis, the word for sixteen, pronounced, Dee-es-ee-SAYes, not “De-Say.”) To have “conversations” in which I am consistently lost from beginning to end doesn’t seem to be the best way to learn a language.

But who knows. Now just under three weeks in, Christian and I have another six weeks in Mexico to make the most of it. Our classes each day (for three hours) have been going well, I’m constantly studying vocabulary on an app on my phone, and I’m starting to notice results. I’m picking up more words in each sentence, I’m beginning to get more comfortable speaking, and just today, Christian said that he thought my vocabulary had noticeably improved already. Here’s hoping! For now, I’ll just have to get used to the fact that I’m not going to understand everything, and that that is okay.

Our first day in Mexico was the longest day of my life. 

Beginning our travels at 10pm on Monday evening (having been awake for thirteen hours already), we took a plane to a bus to another plane to a three-hour car ride, arriving at our destination a mere fifteen hours after departed. At this point, it was only 1:30pm, a long way away from finishing.

The biggest adjustment, even greater than the language, was the weather. As some of you know, Washington, D.C. has been unseasonably cold, remaining in the 50s and 60s during the month of May as it experienced 19 straight days of rain. When we arrived in Tenosique, Mexico, a tropical area in the south of the country, the temperature was 102 with a dew point of 66. I was completely shell-shocked throughout the first day. No air conditioning, no ice or cold water, no relief in either night or day. (Now in our third day, I have not stopped sweating at any point.)

But wait, we haven’t even done anything yet; our day, in a sense, was just beinning! First there was a tour of the place, were acquainted with our rooms (more in a second), a quick nap, then concluded with multiple hours of aimlessly walking around the grounds attempting to have conversations in Spanish with the volunteers and migrants. Let’s just say I was not in the mood nor did I have the energy for this to be enjoyable.

So what about the room? Well, let’s just it’s not exactly what we were expecting. Not a room in the friary, our room is a communal barracks-style room shared with other volunteers. It’s kind of austere… 

     

  

 

It was at this point that we thought we had made a mistake. What have we gotten ourselves info? There was no mention of our language classes and it appeared that we would be volunteering all summer as workers (or at least until we died of heat stroke.)

Christian and I prayed together that night before bed in our sweltering room, exhausted, dejected, and a bit worried. We were going to reserve judgment until the morning, deciding that a good night’s sleep would make things better.

We were half right. The heat kept me up all night, prolonging the longest day, but the next two days have been much better. We met with the director and made a schedule, organized prayer times (previously not regularly done but added at our request), and began our classes. 

We’ve had some interesting and exciting experiences already since then, and it looks like it’s going to be a great, albeit hot, Summer  for the both of us… But that first day was something I will never forget nor do I want to repeat!

Before leaving, I filmed this final video for the summer. My internet is not great here so you may have to go to the YouTube channel to find it, but this link might work:

With my last paper turned in and exam taken, another school year comes to a close. Free at last! Over these past eight months, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the Church and Scripture, acquired skills in preaching and pastoral care, and explored new visions of liturgy and prayer. When I think about to where I was in August, I’m just truly amazed at how much I didn’t know, and continue to be inspired to learn more.

But that will have to wait.

With the close of the semester and the books put away, I’m finally able to make two announcements that have been developing all year.

Internship year

As I’ve mentioned too many times to count or cite, the formation process is a long one with many stages. After completing three years of school, it’s time for me to enter the final stage of formation before taking solemn vows: internship. Placed right before one petitions to take final vows (God willing, August 2017), the internship year is intended to be a time of discernment, taking a leave of absence from one’s studies to gain pastoral experience in the province as a full-time minister and to live in fraternity outside of the “safety” and structure of a formation house. As someone who is not solemnly professed or ordained, and given that it will only last one year, the experience is but a taste of what the rest of my life will be like as a friar. But it is an important and long-awaited taste.

So where will this be taking place? I’m happy to announce that I will be living and ministering at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, NC. It’s a vibrant multi-cultural parish in one of the best places in the country (not biased!), with more things going on that I can possibly find time for. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing, but there is a lot of options when it comes to adult faith formation, justice and peace work, prison ministry, elementary school help, liturgical preparation, and general pastoral work in all capacities. It is definitely an exciting place to be and I’m really looking forward to starting this stage of my life in August.

Summer Immersion experience

The reason I say in August rather than in a few weeks is because there is a second, potentially more interesting announcement to this post. On May 31 I will be traveling to Mexico with another student friar to live and work with the Franciscans for two months.

While our main task will be spending 3-4 hours a day in private tutoring sessions to become more proficient in Spanish, it will definitely be more than a language immersion experience. Living at a migrant center on the Guatemalan border, our days will be spent with people so desperate that they’re willing to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, with little-to-no money, contacts, or place to stay, face danger of violence and abduction along the way, and be greeted with hatred and inhospitality in their new country. They are in need of sustenance, housing and medical care, for sure, but they are also in dire need of safety, respect, and someone to advocate for them. No doubt, this will be an experience like none other for me, and I hope to be able to share it through written reflections this summer and potentially a video when I return.

Until then, it’s time to pack up my things, kick my feet up, and glory in the fact that I’m done going to school for 15 months! Here’s to moving out!

During the second week of July, 2010, I decided that I wanted to be a Franciscan Friar. Sitting in a chapel all alone that night, a flood of clarity came over me. I realized that, even though I had been struggling for months about what I should do, I had actually made the decision in my heart a long time ago. It was time to admit it to myself and stand by it: “I want to be a Franciscan friar,” I said out loud. Since that moment, nothing has changed. In terms of my commitment to the life, I could have received my habit, made solemn vows, and began living the life of a friar that evening in July six years ago. I was that sure then and remain that sure today.

Is that to say that I fully knew what that commitment would mean or that I was prepared to do so? No, surely not. Nor does it mean that everything in my years as a friar has been affirming of that desire either. There have been bumps and bruises along the way, moments of disillusionment and crisis, and my understanding of what that original desire to be a friar meant has certainly been refined. Work was needed to be done on my part, and continues to be done, to turn that desire into a formal, conscious, prepared commitment.

And yet, the point remains: in terms of discerning whether or not I want to stay for the rest of my life as a friar, my discernment ended more than five years ago in that chapel.

This, I would like to make very clear, is not the norm among people entering our Order. In fact, I would venture a guess to say that it is almost never the case. Guys don’t come into postulancy (the first year of formation) sure of where they’re supposed to be for the rest of their lives or ready to make any formal commitment. Even after two, three years of living with the friars, many guys aren’t there yet.

And they don’t have to be. 

Becoming a solemnly professed friar is an intentionally long engagement. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, the formation process to make solemn vows in our Order takes at least five years (in my province, the minimum is six years), and no formal commitment takes place until the end of the second year. That’s a lot of timetime to  try on the life, ask questions, struggle with challenges, and overcome doubts and fears. Like anything else, it rarely happens overnight.

But even if it seemingly does and someone finds themselves in my positionsure of where I’m headed and ready to get therediscernment in the broader sense does not stop. As a Franciscan friar, I may have moved beyond the initial question of whether or not I want to be a friar in the first place, but I will never move beyond the questions of how to live this vocation out in the world today.

How am I called to live?

Who am I called to serve?

What does it mean to be a brother?

These are questions that can never be answered definitively. As the world changes, as we incorporate new brothers into the Order, as the Church presents new needs, and as I change with experience and knowledge, the way in which we answer these questions will inevitably change with them.

This evening, five members of my house will join the four others on their internship year, in renewing our vows to the Franciscan Order for another year, formally recommitting ourselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. For some, this is a moment that has required great discernment, evaluation, and preparation to determine that this path was still the one for them; for others it is simply another step along the way towards something that we committed ourselves to along time ago. Today, that’s not really what’s important though, and certainly not the focus on my reflection. The point that I see in all of this is that, no matter where we are on the journey, our discernment never stops, it only changes its form.

This is as much the case for Franciscans discerning religious as it is for all Christians: many of us have no question whether or not we want to remain a Christian and live out our baptismal promises, but the question of how we do it will never end. A life in Christ, no matter its form, requires that we always be discerning His call and ready to respond in the way that our world needs us most.

This is the most recent family photo I have… from 2010. I guess we’ll have to take a new one this weekend at the Cole Family Reunion!

It’s Tuesday! Do you know what that means? It’s time for another “Ask Br. Casey” video. This week our question comes from an actual viewer (who did what I asked and left a question in the comments like all of you will do this week… right?) His question has to do with family: Are you allowed to visit your family?

It’s a great question and one of the most popular among discerning men. They read passages like Matthew 8:21-22 in which Jesus tells a man to forget about burying his father and instead follow him, or about Francis of Assisi who renounced his family so to be completely dependent on God. If I join the friars, do I have to renounce my family too? For some Orders, particularly monastic ones, this is in fact the case. They live very enclosed lives and are never able to take vacation or visit their families.

That is simply not the case for us, though. While the first passage from scripture definitely focused on the urgency of following Jesus, not allowing ourselves to be bogged down by the practical matters of this world, it must be balanced with another passage a few chapters later: just because someone has been consecrated to the Temple does not mean that s/he renounces all responsibility of honoring father and mother (Matthew 15:1-9). In the same way, we do not enter religious life to run from our families or to free us from unwanted responsibility. We do so for love of our new family, one that has Christ as the head and adopts many others as our brothers.

In this way, then, we must balance the new family we have chosen with the old family we have been given. Just as with a married person, we would not run home to our biological family every time we didn’t have work, abandoning our spouses and children. That’s absurd. The same is true in the friary. Just because it’s a three-day weekend doesn’t mean we can all scatter, leaving behind those who do not have or are unable to return to their biological families. Like a married person, we must continue to support our biological families, visit them as frequently as we can, and encourage them to get to know our fraternity, but in a way that it upholds, rather than detracts, from the life of the fraternity.

In short, yes, we are absolutely free (and even required) to visit our families from time to time, but must also learn to see our brothers in the fraternity as a family worthy of our time.

There’s not much more to the video than what I’ve written here, but I figured I’d give readers of the blog the option to read or to watch as they are very different mediums. I hope you enjoy and be sure to ask your own questions below!

(For those on email, you may watch the video here.)

As many of you have seen, the Top Ten Friar Questions video I posted during the summer had quite the response. It turns out that there are many more questions out there to be answered about being a friar! From discernment and prayer, lifestyle and entertainment, church and culture, the questions keep coming in.

At first, I thought the best thing to do would be another “Top Ten” video, something like “Ten More Friar Questions.” As I thought about it more, though, I wanted something a bit more intentional and much more sustainable. Instead of quickly answering ten questions at one time, what about answering one question at a time in depth? And so “Ask Br. Casey” was born. Below you will find the newest YouTube video and also the first in a new segment. Each week I will select one question from those asked here on the blog or on the video itself, and answer it in a new video. Questions can be about Franciscan life, the Church, culture, or personal questions for me, Br. Casey, about my everyday life. What do you want to know?

Since I will be heading back to school shortly, I thought that I would start by answering a very commonly asked question: How much longer do I have to go to school before I can become a priest?

For those on email, you can view the video by clicking here.

 

Encountering Ourselves

While yes, there are experiences further from my comfort zone than making bead necklaces with a tiny child that doesn't speak English, the problem was that I focused on my struggle and not on the boy in front of me. Such is the experience of a first time missionary.

While yes, there are experiences further from my comfort zone than making bead necklaces with a tiny child that doesn’t speak English, the problem was that I focused on my struggle and not on the boy in front of me. Such is the experience of a first time missionary.

As I’ve reflected with others over the past few days, answering the obvious, “How was the trip?” question more than a few times, I was discouraged at first that I didn’t have a clear answer. “It was good,” was usually all I could come up with. One person responded, “It sounds like it was a good trip, but I expected a little more excitement in your voice. I just don’t hear it when you talk.” He was right.

This was partly the sleep deprivation giving mixed signals, but there was some truth to it. I didn’t come back excited about the trip because I didn’t exactly know what I was bringing back with me. Whereas a number of the volunteers shared powerful moments of conversion, clear experiences of God in what they were doing, and serious connections with the people we served, my big reflection was, “I was happy not to die on my first trip out of the country.” Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the work, felt relatively comfortable in a foreign environment, greatly enjoyed my time spent getting to know the other volunteers, and was obviously touched by the generosity and openness of the people that welcomed us into their homes and culture (how could you not be touched?) I would even say that I would go back again. It was a good experience. And yet, I didn’t come back “excited.”

In fact, there was a part of me that was a bit disappointed in the trip. The fact of the matter is that I didn’t really invest myself as completely as others did. They came prepared with games and stickers, books to read and puppets to play with; they jumped right in and started talking with people and making friends; they tried everything, took part in every game, meal, excursion, and gift shop. I, on the other hand, followed where I was supposed to go, did what I was supposed to do, and mostly kept my head down. In the end, they had their full experience and I had my “I’m happy I didn’t die” experience. In this way, my lack of excitement could definitely be traced to a little regret here.

But as I think about it more, what I experienced was exactly what I needed to experience. As this was my first time out of the country, let alone visiting a third-world country, so much of this trip was just encountering and overcoming new experiences. Mosquito net beds. Toilet paper in the trashcan. Worrying about drinking enough water but making sure it’s clean. Being one of the only people in the area that speaks English. Eating foods I’ve never tried. Rooms with six bunkbeds. No hot water. Ten days without technology. Navigating new cultural and social norms. The list could go on and on for hours because, really, almost everything I experienced for ten days was new, making even the most routine tasks a new personal challenge to overcome.

It’s no wonder, then, that I didn’t jump right in as others did or come away with the strong connections with the Nicaraguans we met: I was too busy encountering myself in a new environment. It’s strange thing to think about but I think it’s true. Placed in a new environment, stripped of our comforts and distractions, left with only ourselves and our thoughts, we are forced to see even familiar tasks differently, but more importantly, to understand ourselves in those surroundings differently. Just as the background of a picture can drastically change our perspective of the subject, so to do we see ourselves differently in a new surrounding.

For us on mission, I think this is an essential, albeit frustrating, process that everyone has to go through their first time. We all want to go and encounter the other, to understand another culture through intense relationships with new people. And to some extent, I did that last week; it’s kind of impossible not to get a taste of this after ten days. But there’s also a part of me, the disappointed part, that realizes that I was not fully capable of encountering the other. Although I could begin to form a relationship, when so much of my energy in the encounter was spent dealing with my own struggles, my interactions with others were less about encountering another and more about encountering myself in the other. When I met someone new, I couldn’t fully see them because all I could see was my newfound minority status and inadequacy in speaking the language. This is the story, I hope, not so much of egocentric me, but of a first-time missionary in a completely new environment, a story we all must go through before we can go deeper.

So how do I feel about the trip? Well, it was a good trip, and I am happy that I survived. These words don’t seem to say much and they’re certainly not profound reflections, but I say them now without disappointment or regret. I know that I cannot fully encounter another until I have first gotten over the need to encounter myself. I did that. It’s my hope that, as I go on more of these trips and am able to spend less time processing mundane things and more time outside of myself, that the one that I will encounter is my new brother and sister, and that who I will encounter in them is our Lord who unites us as one. I’m glad to have encountered myself in a new way on this trip, but I also know that no encounter with ourselves can ever be complete without this.

Is It Tough To Preach There?

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

If time flies when you’re having fun, it seems to break the sound barrier when you’re busy living out your life’s calling. After eight weeks that I will forever remember at our parish in Triangle, VA, I find myself back at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, MD wondering what just happened. Part of me is in denial. I only started packing to leave an hour before I left, and didn’t even hint at saying goodbye to any of the parish staff until I was packed and ready to go. I sit here in my room half expecting to head back in a few days, but that is not the case. I do not know if or when I will return, but I do know that it has been (dare I be so bold…) my favorite period of being a friar thus far.

For some, this might be surprising given the reputation of the parish. The parish does not have a bad reputation by any means, but before I visited and ultimately decided on it, there seemed to be an obligatory question friars asked when mentioning the parish: “Is it tough to preach there?” What they meant by this was that the influence of the government and military (the marine base at Quantico is just .4 miles away and the parish is the home of many Pentagon and intelligence workers) was perceived to be a detriment to preaching freely about some difficult topics. How could one engage in works of social justice, challenge the culture of war and gun violence, and speak freely about the social ills of the country if everyone there was either a gun-toting conservative or a high-powered government agent that would be keeping tabs on anything controversial (not that either of these things is bad, I should note)? That was the perception I had of Triangle after three years in the Order, having visited the parish only once.

Having now spent eight weeks there and leaving with actual experience preaching, do you want to know my answer? No, yes, and it’s a flawed question. Let me explain.

For starters, the very reasons that some have cited as potentially off-putting are the very reasons that make it an incredible place to work and preach. Because let’s be honest: if you are interested in social justice and actually want to get things done, wouldn’t you want people in the pews who can make a serious difference in their work, say… FBI agents, people who protect and interact with the president on a regular basis, and oh, you know, generals in the armed forces. Sitting in their pews each week are the people that have the power to make incredibly influential decisions on behalf of our country, and are entrusted with the task of forming many young men and women entering these jobs. Rather than reading the New York Times op ed piece and forming an opinion, the people of this parish can go and speak to an actual person working in the Pentagon or investigating an issue on the ground and have a real conversation. This is an incredible resource. Is it tough to preach here? No. Quite the opposite: it’s better informed and more exciting.

On the other hand, having these resources there do require a bit more work in preaching. Our preaching has to be done in a smart way. Unlike “easier” situations for preaching, congregations that are largely similar and everything we say is like “preaching to the choir,” one cannot get away with saying lazy answers or half-truths when those listening are well-informed and diverse. If everyone is conservative in the parish, you could get away with preaching about how there are abuses to the welfare system and the best way to help the poor is to make them “help themselves.” Popular, but not the Gospel. If everyone in the parish is liberal, you could get away with preaching that the entire reason people are poor is because of corporate greed and the top 1% of wealth-owners. Popular, but also not the Gospel. When a parish has the parishioners that St. Francis does, knowledgable and well-connected, and given the issues many have had with their previous churches, overwhelmingly diverse when it comes to the conservative/liberal scale, it can only be successful if it preaches carefully and invites all to the table.

I saw this first hand working with the Care of Creation Committee on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and the Economics Committee on wealth inequality. Both issues are very controversial. Both have the possibility of alienating parishioners. And yet arch-conservatives and flaming liberals (and of course, us normal people in between!) were able to come together, challenge one another, and not leave the conversation by flipping the table and storming off. Why? Because the conversation was incredibly intelligent, and more importantly, involved people that knew that the real answer had to include everyone. Is this a difficult environment to preach in? You bet.

As a result, though, St. Francis is the most successful parish I know of in actually making a difference in social justice issues. How successful? While many churches have a food pantry and outreach program, which St. Francis does, it also has seven different Action and Advocacy groups. The Anti-Human Trafficking group, for instance, is so well-organized and ahead of the curve that two representatives of the parish were asked to present on effectively organizing a parish-run social action group at the Anti-Humam Trafficking conference organized by the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops a few weeks ago. That’s no small potatoes! It is a certified Green Faith parish, an active community organizer through the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (V.O.I.C.E.) organization, a major supporter of respect for life issues (a committee that includes but goes beyond abortion in its defense of the dignity of human life), and… well, you’re probably tired of me shamelessly selling this parish by now. But you get the point: it is a successful parish.

So, is it tough to preach there? No, yes, and ultimately, it’s a faulty question. Because, really, shouldn’t it always be tough to preach somewhere? The Gospel is not easy to follow. It’s challenging. If it seems easy to preach and everyone agrees with what we’ve said, well then maybe we haven’t preached well. If we have picked a side and given people what they want, haven’t we also failed to be bridge-builders to those on the other side? Maybe we haven’t challenged our congregations, or maybe we haven’t challenged ourselves. At St. Francis, one can understand the apprehension to preach and its reputation, given the congregation. For me, though, that’s what all preaching should be, and I loved the opportunity to take part and the excitement of knowing that, if the Lord chose to work through me, and if I took the time to actually listen, I could effect change in the world in a way not possible other places. For me, that’s a tough situation, but not for the reasons some might thinks.

Discernment, Formation, and the Church in the Modern World

If you think that title is long, wait until you see the video! But before I get to that, I have great news! Our brother in Syria, Fr. Dhiya Azziz, OFM was released unharmed by his kidnappers! Praise be to God! Thank you all so much for your thoughts and prayers throughout this past week. 

And with news like that, where do I go from here? Well I can assure you that I can’t beat it. And since you’re going to be disappointed anyway… let’s talk about this video that I have for you. You see, it started off with the best intentions. I planned to film a two part series: one on my discernment process, the other on the formation process of becoming a friar. I worked out the script, had lots of pictures, filmed it three times… and realized it was incredibly boring and useless. What I also realized was that, in between takes, the conversations Rob and I were having were really lively and really interesting. So we filmed that.

And here’s the thing. I think it’s the best video yet. The conversation was candid and lively, the questions were honest and off-the-cuff, and the answers surprised even me. When we went back to see what we had, we couldn’t find a place to cut or edit… and so we didn’t. What I have before you is a forty minute video. That’s right. 4-0. But do you know what? That’s shorter than one episode of Law and Order, and certainly shorter than a football game, so I don’t feel bad at all! Enjoy it at your own leisure, either all at once or in little bites, or don’t enjoy it at all! That’s up to you! All I’ll say is that I am really pleased at how it came out: for the first time, I really think you get to see a bit of my personality and passion for this life come out in a way that blog posts and scripted video reflections can’t capture. For that alone, I stand by it and hope you will to.

For those on email, you can click here to view.

Also, if you’re interested in more about my vocation story, you can click here to read a shortened version, or here to see other related posts. There are also quite a few about the formation process, which can be found here.