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:

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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.