Last weekend was an adventure. Picture this: 40,000 Catholics from around the country all in one place to share their faith, to hear from the best Catholic speakers around, to share in some of the most extraordinary liturgies imaginable and to buy tons of discounted Catholic merchandise. (Okay, not all of the motives were winners!)

Welcome to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, a place that is almost too overwhelming to fully describe! I had the great fortune of making my first appearance this year, and it did not disappoint. With my camera and a bag full of free books to hand out, I walked around the exhibition hall and attended lectures with the intention of sharing my own mission of evangelization and catechesis, while also learning about everyone else’s.

What I found so amazing was the breadth of personalities and spiritualities present. As Catholics, we truly are a big tent, and I met people at LA REC ranging from traditional to progressive, with everything in between, all sharing the same mission: to love and serve Jesus Christ. In a world so divided and focused on what makes us different, it was so encouraging to see so many people come together with only the most important thing on their minds.

At times, I fear that we can get too wrapped up in declaring which type of Catholic we are—as if that matters—and don’t take the time to rejoice in the glory of our diverse Church. For me, that’s what this weekend was about. I hope you enjoy this video as much as I enjoyed attending the Congress!

Yes… I’ve lost it. (In more ways than one actually!) This is yet another video for the week. Not only am I posted new episodes of Catholicism in Focus on Mondays and Lenten reflections on Fridays, it would appear that I have, for some reason, decided that this wasn’t enough. Yes, this is a mid-week vlog coming at you!

The topic of this week’s video? My recent trip to Florida. Ahh… yes… doesn’t that sound nice right about now for all those who are snowed in? When I left Chicago it was 17 degrees; when I arrived in Florida it was 71 (and got up to 82!) I would say that is an improvement.

But lest you think that this video is about taking a vacation or running from my vocation, think again! Anything but! From Saturday to Wednesday I joined Good Shepherd Parish in Tallahassee, FL for their lenten mission, speaking at all of the masses, joining a few parish community groups for meetings and talks, and giving two hour-long session talks to the parish community.

All in all, it was fantastic, and I had a great time. If nothing else, I think this video offers yet another glimpse into my life as a friar, living an itinerant life of evangelization. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Well hello to all. Remember me? My name is Br. Casey and I used to write a blog here. It’s been nearly two months since I posted a video or blog post, and, let’s be honest, almost four months since I’ve posted an actual reflection. Quite a hiatus if you ask me.

But not without good reason! Man, it’s been a crazy few months, and not without a lot of work for future Breaking in the Habit works!

Br. Jay Woods, OFM, getting a closeup with the wide angle lens

Br. Jay Woods, OFM, getting a closeup with the wide angle lens

Church Alive. My internship officially ended way back on May 26 when I went on a road trip throughout the east coast filming a documentary series with two of my fellow student friars. In the back of our minds were the negative things we hear about the Church on the news and from the outside—”No one goes to church anymore,” “the Church is in decline,” “faith is not relevant today,”—with a goal of finding the other part of the story. We knew, of course, that these statements each had some truth to them, but we also knew that the some churches are full, that in some places the Church was growing, that faith was what got some people by, that the Church was very much alive. 

For 25 days—yes, nearly a month—the three of us traveled from city to city unsure of what we’d find. Sure, we had a plan. Sure, I contacted people ahead of time. But you know that nothing ever goes according to plan! You know that there were surprises at each stop! The trip was exciting, tiring, stressful, encouraging, and altogether difficult, and I’m happy I did it. If all goes well, you might see the fruit of it late this fall.

Vacation. After what seemed like a never-ending sprint of work since Christmas, I was so thankful to take a little over a week off at the end of June to see my family and to just relax. Outside of posting the final “A Friar Life” video and a phone interview, I did nothing of consequence. And it was fantastic. Yard and card games, beer, movies, and a lot of sleeping in.

The pilgrimage consisted of men from the OFMs, Conventuals, and Capuchins, all preparing for solemn vows

Solemn Vow Retreat. Which was good, because I needed all the stored up energy I could get! Starting with the first transatlantic flight of my life (watched three whole movies and took a nap!) and ending five weeks later with twenty hours of traveling in one day, I had an AMAZING trip to Europe for my solemn vow retreat. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Rome. The trip started with a chaotic and exciting three days in the ancient city, hitting as many of the landmarks as we could in such a short time. It was in the 90s, public transportation went on strike our second day, and we were all jet-lagged. But man did it all just blow my mind. I mean, there were structures in that city that are 7-8 times older than my country. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, there was an ancient monument, a gorgeous Church, a historical artifact. The city is so old and so filled with amazing sights that the Church they call Chiesa Nuova, literally “New Church,” is nearly 450 years old. And seriously. St. Peter’s is bigger than you think. You see it in pictures and you hear that it’s really big. No, you just can’t fathom how big it is until you are in the square, walking around the altar, or standing on the roof of the Franciscan curia next door (year, we knew a guy…) We only got to spend a few hours there, but if I had seen only this in Rome, the trip would have been worth it.

Rieti Valley. After the craziness of the first few days in the city you could say that the “true” pilgrimage began with our trip to the Rieti Valley. Surrounded by mountain ranges, this valley is the first place that St. Francis went to preach and is home to some of the most significant Franciscan events. We went to Greccio, the place of the first ever nativity scene (organized by St. Francis); saw the places where St. Francis prayed and wrote some of his most famous writings; walked around the earliest houses in the order; and even saw a tau cross on a little chapel painted by St. Francis himself. While not as exciting as Rome and not as powerful as our next stop, it was a great introduction to Franciscan history and warmed us up for what we were about to encounter.

The Basilica of St. Francis

Assisi. What can I really say about Assisi that others haven’t already said? Truly, there is something special about the city. From the ancient wall on the top of the mountain that was partially destroyed by the rising lower classes (something that St. Francis would have probably took part in as a 15-year-old), to the baptismal font where Francis and Clare were both baptized as children, to the basilicas that honor their lives and hold their remains 800 years later, everything about the city was just immensely powerful. While I struggled at first to deal with all of the other people flooding to the city trying to capture some of its power (and a million selfies in supposedly quiet and holy places…) I think it was the very fact that there were so many people there that eventually touched me the most. What we were visiting were not just old buildings, dead stones on top of dead stones, we were making a pilgrimage to be a part of a living faith. Yes, many people came to take pictures and most obviously couldn’t read the signs that said “quiet” written in three languages in every holy sight, but there was something powerful drawing them there. They may have expressed their reverence differently than I did, but they were not there for the same reason that people go to art museums. At least not most of them. I remember sitting at the tomb of St. Francis down in the tiny crypt of the basilica and marveling at the literally hundreds of people that walked through every few minutes. It was a constant stream of people, so thick you could barely walk at times, lighting candles, touching the altar, kneeling, stopping for prayer, and gazing on with amazement.

And yet, the most amazing place to me in the whole city was a place that few people actually visited: San Damiano church. About a 15 minute walk down the hill (and so difficult to get back from) still stands the original church where St. Francis stayed after his conversion (officially becoming an oblate of the Church before starting his order), and where St. Clare lived for the majority of her life. To someone looking for something big and extraordinary, something classy or fancy, this is not it. The church might hold fifty people if they packed in, there is little-to-no artwork on the walls, and never a busload of tourists waiting to take a picture. It’s just a little chapel of stone off the beaten track. And it was so amazingly peaceful and grounding to be there. This is where the charism began. This is where the Poor Clares began. Incredible to sit and pray there.

The mountain top at La Verna

La Verna. Even in Assisi all good things must come to an end, and after two weeks of touring and sweating nonstop (oh, yeah, it was 95 degrees each day with no AC), we made it for our final stop for an intensive retreat: Mount La Verna. Located a few hours north of Assisi in Tuscany, La Verna is the place where St. Francis received the stigmata. If San Damiano was an incredible place to pray, I have no works for La Verna. It was cool, only in the 70s during the day and down to the 50s at night, surrounded by trees and filled with walking trails up the mountain, and basically just one big place of meditation. Each day I found a new rock, new overlook, new trail to stop and pray, to contemplate the beauty of nature, to imagine what it must have been like to be St. Francis walking around these deserted trees. I sat at one place, what I now call “epiphany rock,” for almost an hour each day and found myself thinking more clearly and tackling bigger issues than I ever have in my life. I found peace, was challenged, and felt at home with God and self in that place. It was a fantastic place to do a retreat and end our pilgrimage.

But wait, there’s more.

If there is ever a time to take a selfie, this is it

Vacation. As you’ll remember, I only took “a little over a week” of vacation back in June, meaning that I still had a week left to take. Yeah, I took in in Europe. I mean, c’mon! How many times am I going to get to Europe in my life with absolutely no responsibilities? You bet I was going to save my vacation money and travel around a bit. Starting in a small hotel in Florence, I spent three nights with the friars in Venice, stopped for 6 hours in Innsbruck, Austria to climb to the top of the Alps on my train north, and then three days with the friars in Munich, Germany. My quick synopsis of each: Venice was chaotic and dirty and yet a must-see with gorgeous views everywhere you look, Innsbruck might have been the best part of the whole trip (including Assisi) and going to the top of the Alps was definitely the coolest thing I have ever done in my life, and basically all I did in Munich (and this is not an exaggeration) was eat sausage and drink beer. So, yeah, that’s a vacation I won’t forget!

To Chicago, and beyond! I’m running out of breath here (more like my fingers are getting tired!) but there’s one last thing to mention. After a twenty-hour day of travel in which I jumped six time zones, I took one day of relaxation and packing in Durham before renting a car and driving out to Chicago over two days. I’ve spent that last two organizing my room, setting up doctor’s appointments, preparing for school in a few weeks, and, wait for it…

setting up a permanent film studio in the basement.

This post is already too long for me to get into what that means, but let’s just say that Breaking in the Habit will be making some big steps forward this year. If you haven’t already followed me on Facebook, Twitter, or now Instagram, I suggest you do so now. Besides the large album of photos that will be posted tomorrow only on Facebook, the efforts of Breaking in the Habit are expanding and diversifying, and you’re going to want to catch every announcement coming over the next three weeks! There’s even one that’s so big I’m not sure if I’m allowed to announce it yet…

Until then, thanks for all of your prayers, and I’m happy to be back to work! Peace and good to all!

An Experience Like No Other

For those of you who followed me this summer here on the blog or over on my Facebook page, it should not come at any surprise that my time in Mexico will have a lasting effect on me. How could it not? While I certainly wish I could have spent less time learning Spanish and more time using it with the migrants at La72, I can still say that I left having met some extraordinary people, heard some moving stories, and with a changed perspective that will no doubt effect my life as a Franciscan. Naturally, I couldn’t share everything in one video, but here’s a brief glimpse of what the trip meant to me and how this next year will be unlike any other as a friar.

As hard as it is to believe, Christian and I had our last Spanish class yesterday. After a little more than seven weeks, our time is up at La72, and we’ll be heading to Mexico City  on Wednesday for a few days of tourism, reflection, and much needed relaxation before heading back to the United States on Sunday. It’s been quite a trip, and I will definitely not go home empty handed.

Some Spanish

My primary goal in coming to Mexico was to improve my Spanish and that definitely happened. I would be lying if I said that I’m not a little disappointed in the amount I learned, but I never intended to leave the country fluent in just two months; this experience was always supposed to be the first of many along the road to fluency and I am happy with the foundation that it offered. We learned some basic vocabulary, ten different verb tenses (yeah… our teachers lied to us when they said there’s just “past,” “present,” and “future!”), and many common phrases, enough to get by in many situations.

Malas Palabras

As many of you know, though, language is much more than asking for things and calling objects by their correct name. It’s about knowing situations, being informal, and yes, knowing when and how to swear. And let me tell you: Mexicans know how to swear. Whereas English has only a handful of rude or vulgar words that are repeated over and over in rap songs and movies—the only “creative” ones being horribly offensive and filled with hate—Spanish, or maybe more accurately Mexican Spanish, has a plethora of hilarious, playful, and powerful “bad words.” For some, this might seem like a strange thing for a friar to be talking about. Swear words? Two things: 1) knowing something bad doesn’t mean that one has to use it, but it’s important to know what’s going on, 2) “bad words” in many places here depend on context, and it is often completely acceptable to call a friend a terrible word in jest and to use that same word as an incredibly offensive slur in another situation. Will I use these words often? Probably not, but it was worth a few laughs.

Minority

As I wrote a few weeks ago about race and privilege, this experience has partially opened my eyes to things I never knew, partially solidified thoughts I already had. In many ways, it has been such a contradictory experience. On the one had, I have felt marginalized and left out in ways that I had never known before. Not knowing the language, the culture, the sense of humor, or the way things normally go, I was constantly bombarded with feelings of being different and inadequate. I was never “in,” but rather stuck out like a sore thumb in every situation. And yet, that very sticking out was in fact a sign of privilege in other situations. Even though I was different, being the only white guy among people of color is not the same as being the only person of color in a culture of white people. Even though I was someone different and outside, I was at the same time “special,” looking like the people on tv, the heads of of companies, and those leading the nation in politics. Despite how awful and excluded I felt sometimes, how different and “minor” I thought I was being, others around me were still experiencing minority and powerlessness in a way I never could. This was challenging to navigate as a “friar minor,” and I will have to do a lot more reflecting once I return.

Some unwanted lines

Waist and tan, that is. This trip was by no means a day at the spa. While Christian and I certainly had some great excursions to the river and some of the popular sites of Mexico, the regular day-to-day activities were pretty mundane, pretty unhealthy, and pretty lethargic. Ranking nearly as high as the US in obesity rates, the major problem for people in Mexico is not that they have appetites like we do in the US but that much of their food is low in nutrition and fried. Vegetables are very expensive and uncommon, replaced instead with a diet of rice, beans, fried meat, and corn tortillas. Delicious, don’t me wrong, but not sustainable. You add that diet to an American appetite and a daily routine that involves sitting in a classroom and laying on our beds studying, and you end up with two friars returning to the US with a little more “cushion” than we left with. As far as I can tell (and hope) the extra pounds aren’t that noticeable. I can’t say the same about my tanlines…

A Fraternal Experience

Above all of this is a powerful experience of fraternity. Despite the fact that Christian and I lived in the same house two out of the last three years, our paths never really crossed for very long. In a house of about twenty very busy and scattered people, it’s impossible to spend quality time and connect with everyone on the same level meaning that, honestly, we were not very close.

There was no shortage of quality time this summer.

Besides the time we spent in class each day, Christian and I made it a point to pray together, go out of the house to share a meal, and reflect on the theological, social, and human aspects of our trip everyday. Our discussions were frank and thoughtful, challenging each other when we saw something differently and supporting each other when the trip through us bumps in the road. And there were bumps. In many ways, this has easily been the most difficult experience of my life, feeling disappointment, frustration, sickness, isolation, and inadequacy on a regular basis, and I don’t know how either of us would have done it alone. We got through it, together, on the foundation of our Franciscan fraternity.

For many, it is this very fraternity that attracts people to our way of life, the oneness that we share in life as brothers. What many don’t realize, though, is that just because we’re in this life together with similar values and professions doesn’t mean that fraternity will naturally come. It is not something that can be taken for granted. It requires humility. It takes work. It cannot exist without love and commitment to one another, knowing without a doubt that you are willing to sacrifice for the other and that they are willing to do the same for you. In our relatively comfortable lifestyle in the US, in our potentially institutional lives with separate space and time and jobs and money, this is not always felt so strongly. Just as Christian and I were able to live together for two years without a particularly intimate experience, fraternity within comfort and privacy is not always challenged, and thus, not always realized. More than any other time in my life as a friar, I have been dependent on my brother and seen the need for true fraternity, that is, not just living and working together but being vulnerable, intimate, inter-dependent and committed to someone that I did not hand pick. That’s what I experienced this summer, and that, more than anything, is what I will take back with me. If you ask me, even if I don’t remember a single word of Spanish the minute the plane lands, this has made the whole trip worth it.