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.