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!

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.

Coming Up For Air: What Does Time Off Mean as a Friar?

I’ve been here at my summer assignment in Triangle, VA for about a month now, and what a summer it’s been so far! Apparently, when I first met with the parish staff back in early May, I said the words, “I don’t want to be bored this summer” four different times. The parish has been happy to oblige my request!

So besides making videos and being a rockstar at an elementary school, the only two things I’ve shared thus far, what else am I doing to stay busy? Let’s see…

  • Twice a week I teach a class for an hour an a half. The first class is “How to Read the Bible,” a class I taught last summer in Camden but have almost completely rebooted given the amount I learned in seminary this past year. It is not a Bible “study” in the sense that we are not focusing on specific passages but rather a class to give people the tools to understand how Catholics approach the text with regard to its genre, historical significance, place in salvation history, and life of prayer. The second class, a completely new idea for me, is called “Catholic Bootcamp.” Over seven weeks, I hope to cover “all” of Catholicism in a sort of remedial RCIA framework that really challenges even the most faithful Catholics. So far we’ve covered Scripture, history, and theology, and will finish with moral theology, social teaching, and worship. It’s a bit ambitious, to say the least, and I am learning a lot about myself (and my own faith) in the process.
  • Twice now I have preached, alternating weekends, and will plan to do that two more times this summer.
  • With the help of the director of religious education, I’m organizing a summer young adult group (ages 18-25) that meets once a week. So far it’s been casual, focusing almost exclusively on building community. We’ve played ultimate frisbee, had a cookout, and tonight, we’ll be watching Wall-E in the gym. I’m amazed at how the group, which otherwise had never met one another, has been so enthusiastic about organizing these events and how well they’ve gotten along with one another. A separate post is sure to follow.
  • One of the big reasons I chose St. Francis in Triangle for my summer assignment was the Franciscan Action and Advocacy group. Among the most active social justice parishes in the province (if not the most active given the amount it has done to effect actual legislation), I’ve had a good opportunity to learn from the director and see how much a parish is capable of. Although the summer is a bit slow, I’ve sat in on meetings for two different groups, plan to attend the USCCB’s Anti-Human Trafficking Conference next week (for which the parish’s director will be a key speaker on a panel) and in a few weeks, will lead a discussion on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of our common home.
  • Miscellaneous tasks include giving the announcements and greeting parishioners at all of the masses, serving at a Eucharistic minister, cooking dinner a few times per week in the house, attending staff meetings, volunteering once a week at the parish-run food pantry, meeting with parishioners on request, and periodically attending weddings, baptisms, or special events at the parish for the experience.

I mention all of these things, not to brag about all I’m doing (I mean, it’s a lot of work, but come on… I know so many people reading this post work so much harder than I do!) but to set up what this reflection is really about: how much should a friar “work”?

Here’s the issue: as a professed religious, we are called to serve the Church in one capacity or another. Because this is the life we live and not a job we fulfill, the idea of being “off” and “on” is not quite as clear as it is for someone who works a 9-5 job and clocks out at the end of the day. Being at a parish, and being someone who wants to work as hard as possible, I’ve found that there are things that can fill every minute of the day if I let them. (There have been more than a few days this summer that I have focused on ministry, in one way or another, from 9am until 10pm.)

At the one extreme, this can be suffocating and deadly. If a friar overextends himself, constantly giving what he has not replenished through prayer, or if he separates the external ministry from what is essential to the charism, namely minority and fraternity, such work will eventually lose purpose and the friar will burnout. This is not good, and as a result, there are many friars that are very sensitive to the amount of work we do, calling others to learn to say no more often, to work less and spend more time in fraternity.

At the other extreme, an extreme I find equally as deadly, is to put so much emphasis on “self-care” and fraternity that barely any ministry gets done. The irony of this situation, constantly focused on avoiding the burnout of work, can actually lead to a burnout of a different kind: isolated and inward-looking, this friar runs the risk of falling into a rut, losing passion, and becoming numb to the comforts around him. This is obviously not good either, and as a result, there are many friars that a very sensitive to the amount of time they take off and call others to spend less time in the friary and more time in the world.

Obviously, the amount of work that one does is going to be based on that person’s ability and we can’t expect more from a friar than he is able to give or judge him for how much or little he works. What I can say, though, is that there can be a healthier, more balanced approach to work for friars (including myself!) Here are just a few reflections at the moment:

  • We can’t give what we don’t have. If we spend little or no time in prayer, do not interact with the brothers enough to let them know we love them (and let them do the same for us!), and are so busy that we lose touch with the outside world, we will eventually have nothing to give no matter how many hours we work.
  • We are a “fraternity in mission,” not a “fraternity and mission”; these two aspects of our life should not be compartmentalized. For those who complain about “workaholic” friars, we need to remember that working together is a vital part of fraternity; for those who complain about “lazy” friars, we need to remember that recreating is a vital part of our mission.
  • Our work is not like other people’s work: while others work to make a living, we live to work for others. Yes, some days are incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright deflating. And yet, everyone needs time off, including vacations, to recharge. But work for us is who we are. Francis made it very clear in his writings that we are to work before we beg, that work (particularly manual work) is essential to be a Franciscan. It’s my hope for all friars, and what is driving me this summer, that we be so overjoyed with the Gospel that we would want to fill every moment of our day living and sharing it, not counting it as “work” to be completed so we can go on vacation or have some “real fun” but something we can’t get enough of.
  • Finally, I need to remember that people in the “real world” work just as hard, but also have to take care of kids, spend time with their spouse and worry about paying bills, without not having the amazing support that we have from our parishes and donors.

My summer here in Triangle is more than halfway over and I’m truly devastated by that fact. I have loved every minute of the work I’m doing here and would do even more if there was more time in a day. And it’s because of that, it is because I love doing what I’m doing so much and want to be able to do so for the rest of my time here, that I’m taking almost the entire day off: relax in my room, grab some lunch in town, play a round of golf, and come back for prayer and dinner with the friars. I know that I could be reading Laudato Si, planning class tomorrow, or taking care of any number of people at the parish today. And a part of me feels really guilty about not doing these things today. But part of my formation as a friar is learning to pace myself, that I want to sprint when it’s really a marathon, that all I want to do is to continue diving deeper, but I can’t do that without coming up for some air every once in a while.

Now What?

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Church in Triangle, VA.

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA.

The year just keeps on moving! After yet another year of studies, I find myself done with exams, finishing up my self-evaluations, and heading to retreat with a simple question: Now What?

For eight weeks this summer, I have been assigned to St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA. Walking distance from the Quantico Marine Corps base and just off of I-95, St. Francis mixes a large amount of military and government workers with people from far out of town, easily traveling a great distance to be with the friars. These two factors mean that its 2,000 families are diverse in culture and background, coming from all over the country and constantly changing.

Don’t think that the transient nature of the parish means that it is anything less than lively; quite the opposite, actually. As one parishioner said, “We don’t know how long we’ll be stationed here so we can’t afford to take our time. We need to jump right in and take part in our community.” As a result, there is always something going on at either the church or school with new people, ranging from award-winning justice and peace advocacy to a growing youth ministry to innovative pastoral training programs like Stephen Ministry, a program that “equips and empowers lay caregivers to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”

If that’s not enough, the parish is young and energetic, absolutely teeming with families. When I arrived Saturday for a visit, they had already had two First Holy Communion masses and had one more to go to fit the 150 children in the program. Yeah, that that’s a lot of kids and a lot of young families. Everywhere I looked in its seven, packed Sunday masses were growing families, and they seemed excited to be there.

Needless to say, I’m excited to be there as well, and couldn’t be coming at a better time. After completing a comprehensive parish-wide survey to assess the needs and strengths of the parish, they recently launched a “Now What?” campaign to reengergize the faithful out of complacency and into the world. The first phase, Seek, challenged parishioners to identify their gifts, to articulate their understanding of God, and to determine what was holding them back from taking the next step in their faith journey. The second phase, started during Lent and continuing throughout the time I will be there, is called Discover: “we will ‘Discover’ ways to respond to our NOW WHAT? question through homilies, a parish mission, ministry showcases, a bulletin column, our website, and social media, among other things.” New initiatives are being started, old habits are being questioned, and everyone is being challenged to discover something new about the Church.

So what does that mean for me? Well, after meeting with the pastor and lay pastoral associate, it looks like I’ll be pretty busy! Teaching will be a strong component, as last summer, but I’ll be adding a new course to the “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?” course I taught in Camden. Entitled, “Catholic Bootcamp,” my goal is to teach an “everything you always should have known about Catholicism but were afraid to ask” class, covering the basics of the Bible, Catholic theology, liturgy and sacraments, spirituality and prayer, history, and social teaching in six weeks. Ambitious? You bet! But our tradition has really failed over the years to evangelize and catechize our own people, and many adults honestly don’t know their faith. I see it as a major calling of mine to make the Catholic faith an interesting, engaging experience for everyone. The message is great, but the delivery needs some work for sure!

So that accounts for about three hours of my week plus preparation… what about the rest of the summer? Add to that visiting the students at the elementary school, helping run a vacation Bible school after that, volunteering at the food pantry, setting up a college/young adult ministry, helping to build the already thriving youth ministry (and hopefully going to Kings Dominion!), lectoring, preaching and celebrating communion services when the priests are called away, and working with a creative and hard-working Coordinator of Franciscan Action and Advocacy. And that’s just what we discussed in an thirty minute meeting this morning! I also hope to get a Spanish tutor a few days a week, meet with the marriage preparation team (and maybe even set up some post-Cana formation activities), visit our shut-ins on a regular basis, and if there is any spare time, to sit and just read a book for leisure! Not sure about that last one…

Overall, I couldn’t have had a better weekend in Triangle and couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of things to come. Besides the incredible ministry all around me, the two friars I’ll be living with are great guys, the house is comfortable, and there is a gym and cheap golf course just around the corner of the parish. I guess all I can say is that the answer to “What Now?” is “an awesome summer that I can’t wait to begin.”

And while here would have been a great place to end this post, having given a summary statement and used the title of the blog in a way to bring everything full circle, I continue to type. That’s because the answer to the question at hand has actually nothing to do with parish ministry and everything to do with what I’ll be doing before I head out. You see, what I’m going to do in eleven days is so interesting and exciting that you’ll be asking yourself, with envy and maybe confusion, the entire time I’m doing it, “What Now?!” But not right now. No, what is bound to be the biggest announcement yet on this blog, an opportunity that was inspired by Life From a Suitcase and was hinted at in Spring Break!, will be revealed Friday. It will be unlike anything I’ve done so far as a friar, and yet just a small-scale practice for what I have planned for six years from now. Interested? Excited? Scared? All will be revealed soon enough. You won’t want to miss this one, and you’ll definitely want to be around for all posts (and videos) that follow that week. See you Friday…!

The Paulist Pub

Few things bring brothers today like a cold beer at the end of a long day!

Few things bring brothers today like a cold beer at the end of a long day!

This year, the friars at Holy Name College here in D.C. have been a part of quite a few gatherings. There was the beginning of the year social of all the religious, the recent Franciscan prayer and dinner that brought together OFMs, Conventuals, Capuchins, and TORs (which you can read about here), and the yearly lecture for students in formation. Some, like the “Capuchin Cafe,” have been completely spontaneous and wildly successful: more than 100 students/religious/formators/professors come out each time for a holy hour, great music and coffee each month!

Last night there was something completely new. Not as well attended at the Capuchin Cafe and certainly not organized, it was by far the most creative: The “Paulist Pub.” An obvious play on the Capuchin Cafe, the Paulists decided for a slightly more “adult” way of bringing people together than the Capuchins, replacing coffee with beer and an basement packed with undergrads with an intimate courtyard full of seminarians.

But this was no kegger of cheap light beer, let me tell you. No, in keeping with the history of religious orders, this was a beer brewing competition. That’s right, homemade beer straight from religious houses. You don’t get any more medieval than that! And it was delicious! The Capuchins made a Scottish Ale, a common flavor that was a bit more of my preference, while the Paulists, going for innovation and creativity, decided to experiment with putting mangos in an IPA as it fermented. As someone who does not like that style of beer, let alone never-before-attempted styles made in someone’s basement, I was skeptical. But they proved me wrong. Both were crisp and refreshing, making the vote very difficult indeed.

But lest this become a food and drink blog, I’ll say that I loved the creativity and spontaneity of the event and that we need more of this in our formation experience. No one was forced to be there, there were no formators or evaluators organizing the event, and there was no agenda for our conversation other than to have a good time.  together in a setting that had nothing to do with formation or training.

And yet, how critically important such an experience is in our formation and training. In a time when vocations are “not what they used to be,” (although actually growing in the past decade!), it’s really important that we be around people that share our experiences and trials, that we have peers and friends not just “brothers” and wisdom figures. There is a lot we can learn from our older brothers who have lived this life longer than us, but there is just no replacing learning with those who are also new. Here in D.C., we have the luxury of being surrounded by hundreds of men in their 20s and 30s who have chosen to step away from the world and to walk with God in a different way. Each of us has recently struggled with discernment, made major life decisions, and stepped into unchartered waters. To know that there are men life me, who struggle with the same things I do and want what I seek, is very comforting indeed; to actually get to know these people, especially when it is over a fresh brewed beer, is irreplaceable.

So cheers to all my fellow formation students out there and let’s raise our glasses to all those discerning our way of life. It’s a great life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. For me, it’s not about the beer or the coffee, not about organizing orchestrated events with elaborate prayers and planned entertainment, it’s about guys who share a common hope and dream for themselves and the world coming together to get to know each other, support one another, and have a great laugh. With the right group of guys, it could be anything; what better place than the neighborhood religious pub!

***

As far as our beer brewing goes, we’re considering getting in on the action! One of the Capuchins gave me a book about brewing beer made easy, and we might just have to make our own Holy Name Province lager! Stayed tuned next fall for developments!

More of the Same

With the exception of the full-year hiatus when I wasn’t allowed to write during novitiate, these past two weeks have been the longest period of time without posting something. For all my avid readers out there, and by avid readers I mean my parents, I apologize for leaving you hanging for so long. One of the goals of the blog when I set out was to post regularly, but it just wasn’t happening last week.

For starters, school is really kicking up right now. I had a 12-page paper due on the 10th, a 15-page paper due this Wednesday, another 8-page paper due next Friday. That’s not to mention all of the other 3-page reflections papers, the regular reading assignments, and of course, the five exams or papers I will have in just two weeks. But nobody wants to hear my sob stories…

In reality, the bigger issue in not writing lately is that, frankly, life has been “more of the same” for the past couple of weeks. It’s been great, don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed myself and trust me when I say that I’m not bored. But when I was trying to think about something to share, there was nothing that I had not already shared in some other fashion before.

Three Sundays in a row I have played in a softball league with the same diocesan seminarians as I mentioned in Death, Pickaxes, and Home Videos: A Franciscan Feast. I’m happy to report that we have won all of our games so far and will hopefully be playing in the playoffs next week!

I continue to teach English at the parish next door as I mentioned in The View From the Periphery, and that is still the most exhausting yet fulfilling thing I do. Getting to know the people a little better over the past few months has really been great, and seeing their fortitude and progress in such a difficult situation is inspiring.

On Thursday our Vicar Provincial (vice president of the province) visited the house last Thursday for us to renew our vows for another year, as I wrote about in Renewal of Vows. While the one receiving my vows, the two witnesses, and the guardian of the house were all different, the words I spoke and the commitment I made are the same: I wish to live the life of a friar for another year. Given that it’s something that I’ve done now twice and that I plan on living this life until I die, there was just something very pedestrian about it and not worth sharing.

On Friday, we had our monthly fraternal gathering, as in Don’t Fear Fraternity. This month we celebrated the birthday of four of our guys with a “Game Show” theme, complete with the Price is Right, Jeopardy, and Charades. I took video of almost everyone’s acting ability, but unfortunately promised not to share outside of the house. Trust me when I say that “Airport security” and “Police Officer” were pretty funny though.

And lastly, last night was the third edition of the Capuchin Cafe, the holy hour and concert I mentioned in Frat Party with Hillbilly Thomists. It was another successful evening had by all, and arguably even better than the first: lay people and diocesan seminarians replaced the Dominicans, and one girl played Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Lorde’s “Royals” on a ukulele. She was pretty dang awesome.

All in all, the past few weeks have been an experience of the familiar, and that’s not a bad thing. Much of life is simply the same situations we’ve faced before; the difference is that we have changed and thus experience it in a new way (if you’re having deja vu, this, too I have blogged about!) There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not boring. It’s not monotonous. It’s not even remotely repetitive. Sometimes experiencing what’s familiar, especially when it’s good and fulfilling, is a welcome rest from the ever-changing unpredictable world out there and a time to simply have the confidence that everything is going to be great: I’ve done it once, I can do it again. In these cases, I guess I just have to count my blesses and hope for a  little more of the same!

When Will This End?

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

Today was a rough day. Without going into great detail, I encountered difficulty with school, formation, all three vows, unavoidable situations and my bracket was seriously ruined in two games. (Seriously Iowa State??) In short, today was a day of penance.

In initial formation, days (or even months) like this can be plentiful. The fact of the matter is, and this doesn’t matter who one’s formator is or what the program is like, formation can be a very frustrating experience because it is but a reflection of the life we were inspired to live. Yes, we are “real” friars and this is “real” life, but in a lot of ways formation does not accurately reflect the day-to-day life that much of us will be living in a just a few short years. This is partly by design. As new friars, we need a little extra oversight, a few more restrictions, more direction and evaluation, and certainly a whole lot of school. There are simply things that have to be different about our life so that we can be ready to live the one we see lived around us.

And while I understand that, it is days like today that make it very hard to see the merit in “the now.” I want to get out of this house and do full time ministry. Why do I have to be stuck here taking stupid tests, writing meaningless evaluations? I want to be with the people of God away from all of this personal attention. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I find it very difficult sometimes to stay focused on the present, and even impossible at times to find the merit in the present when the future captures my attention. Why am I doing THIS when I could be doing THAT?

I think there is a temptation is all of us, not just religious in formation, to see the preparations of life as hoops to jump through. Whether it’s school, job training, internships, or even entire stages of our life (teenage years come to mind), what is ahead always looks more enjoyable than what is directly in front of us, and we count down the days until it is over so that we may begin the “real” task, whatever it may be. At the end of high school, I couldn’t wait for college; at the end of college, I couldn’t wait to enter the friars; even towards the end of that summer in college when I lived at the church, the summer that started my vocation journey and was arguably the greatest time of my entire life, I couldn’t wait to get back to school and move on to the next stage of my life.

In many cases, the preparation period actually is genuinely terrible and it is fitting to look forward to future possibilities. Days like today force my attention away from the present into a future that is much more desirable, frankly, as a way to inspire me to continue on my path forward.

But there is also a great danger in this. For in thinking about the future, I have spent time in the realm of what is truly not real, the possibility of reality, while what is truly real right in front of me has passed by unnoticed. Some go through their entire lives this way, waiting for what is next, having never actually experienced what is now. It is a constant cycle of moving back and forth from day dreaming to nostalgia, from one false reality to another.

The present reality may suck. Seriously. Late nights, difficult work, unfair treatment, bad luck, uncomfortable situations… the whole nine yards. The temptation will be to dwell on what is next and to ask, “When will this end?” Doing so will undoubtedly offer temporary comfort, as most forms of escapism do. But in the end, what fruit will dwelling on the future produce? What we should be asking, what should be asking on days like today, is not “when will this end?” but “what about this situation, in all of its imperfection and failed expectations, is God revealing himself to me?” Even in the worst of situations, there must be a sense in every moment of every day that God is actively engaging us with his love, breaking into our lives through the ordinary and mundane, to draw us closer to himself. This moment may seem terrible and we cannot wait for it to end, but God is in this moment and in no other. We could spend our entire lives wishing that we lived at a different time in a different situation, but in the end, we were given this moment, and this moment alone, for a reason: to encounter God in a unique way. When we realize this, when we realize the power of the present reality and the possibility that every moment has to be with God in a new and life-giving way, there seems no stranger question to ask than “When will this end?”

School’s Out!

No more papers! No more tests!

No more papers! No more tests!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Advent? No. Christmas? That’s not for a while. No, the most wonderful time I speak of is the close of the school semester. No more papers! No more tests! That’s right, as of 3:30 yesterday, after three exams in one day, I am officially free from any academic responsibility until January 12. Let’s just say that I’m as excited as this dog going to the park.

So what will I do with all this time, you ask? You mean after I purge my room of all that has collected over the past weeks (assorted papers, stacks of books, trash, and laundry on the floor) and turn it back into a bedroom? Well, let’s see:

From now until the day after Christmas, the students at Holy Name College are free (within reason) to do what they need to do. In my case, the first thing I need to do is catch up on a few neglected chores e.g. cleaning the bathroom, and sort out some other things in the house. After that, and for the next few days, I’ll spend my time relaxing, exercising, writing, and catching up with friends. It’s been a long term and my brain definitely needs a few days to cool down! The nice thing is that my ministry, teaching English as a second language, will also end for the year tomorrow evening, so there is not much to worry about in that respect either. The house has a few things planned for the end of the year, including a day of recollection this Saturday and a tree decorating party the following Friday, but outside of that, there is very little going on.

For some, this is a time of complete vegetation: curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and a book, watch lots of movies, and enjoy the freedom of no responsibility. This is what I gloried in last Christmas when the first semester served to be much more difficult that I had anticipated. Others use the time for doing all of the fun things they’re unable to do while in school: see the sites, catch a show, and explore the metropolitan area. This has never been my first inclination, but I like to be dragged to things… sometimes. Still others, like myself and one other this year, will be traveling up to Mt. Irenaeus for a week of prayer and reflection at the friars’ retreat house. I cannot tell you how excited I am for the absolute peace and quite of being in the middle of the woods, 35 minutes away from the closest “city” (by which I mean Olean, NY, population 15,000). I have never experienced quiet like I have there. This time of year, I can only hope for not too much snow and clear skies for hiking and star-gazing. Either way, I think it will be a perfect way to end the semester and prepare me for Christmas.

After that, and after the house celebrates Christmas together, it’s vacation time. Come sunrise on December 26th, I imagine there will be a race to the parking lot as everyone rushes home for a week away. I will once again be heading back to North Carolina to spend time with family for a few days, followed by New Year’s in mountains where a group of college friends have rented a house. It should be a fun break from the regular schedule for sure! We return January 3rd for a short regroup, and then everyone in formation, except for the novices in Wisconsin, will meet for a week of lectures and fraternity in Pennsylvania.

All in all, there is a lot of time for relaxing, reflecting, and most important to you, writing! There have been a few topics rattling around in my head the last couple of weeks and I hope to get them out in this time.

With that said, I wanted to try something new during this break: ask the readers. Apparently the host site for this blog has a “poll” feature for readers to share their opinions. So what the heck! Let’s give it a try. Below, you’ll see two very simple questions: 1) What do you want to read? and 2) What has been your favorite post? For the first, I’ve tried to give suggestions, but please feel free to fill in “other” with something more specific; you may pick up to three choices. For the second, simply write the name (or topic) of the post you liked most. I just want to say that I really appreciate all of you who read this blog regularly and would love to hear your honest feedback. If you would like more space, there is always the comment section. Peace to all!

Thanksgiving: The Calm Before the Storm

Not a bad way to study!

Not a bad way to study!

Thanksgiving break is a wonderful part of the academic calendar. For five long days, students across the country are given time off from classes to visit family, enjoy a celebratory meal, watch football, and just relax. Oh, and catchup on all the assignments that were skipped when too busy earlier in the term. And write papers. And let’s not forget about studying for finals that are less than two weeks away.

The truth is, Thanksgiving break is a unique blend of extreme vegetation and intense productivity. On the one hand, the term is almost over and we need a break. Unlike the diocesan seminarians and lay students that go home for holidays, religious communities tend to stay together and celebrate within their fraternities. This means that there is no stress in packing, traveling, or sleeping on a couch in a house not your own. Community life continues, but prayers are pushed back to allow people extra time to sleep in, the daily grind slows as ministries and classes take some time off, and guys are a little more willing to spend the day playing a game, watching a movie, or just relaxing in the rec-room with a beer. It is a very relaxing time. On the other hand, the term is almost over and we have already taken too many breaks! Two weeks from today, I will [hopefully] have handed in two papers, taken three tests, passed one oral exam, and given one reflection. For that to happen, I have to catch up on the many articles and books that I have not read sufficiently enough (or at all), study the stuff I have, and pray that I learned something by the end. It is a very stressful time.

Taken together, Thanksgiving break is the “calm before the storm.” It’s a time of catching up and looking forward. Sure we have a lot due in the next two weeks, but we have five days free right now to get a lot of it done, and to have some fun in the meantime. So how am I spending it right now? With a study guide in front of the fire on a cold rainy/snowy day. Pretty good to me! I’m looking forward to a great meal and fellowship with my brothers tomorrow, and taking my time getting this work done all weekend.

I want to conclude by saying that I am thankful for all of you who read this blog, all who keep me in your daily prayers, and all who have been instrumental in my vocational journey. You have been a blessing to me over these past three years. May you have a blessed Thanksgiving, and remember, it is ultimately God who deserves all of our thanks and praise!