The Joy of Being a Kid

Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, I'm not able to take pictures of the students myself, so here's a stock photo of other happy kids!

For obvious reasons, I’m not able to take pictures of the students myself, so here’s a stock photo of other happy kids!

“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” This was the chant of students as they marched with joy out of St. Francis Catholic School today. After ten long months for the kids (and nearly eight whole days for me) school let out today for the summer and they could not have been happier. All week, the students simmered at a level of excitement that no one could contain; today at 11:30 it boiled over into pure chaos. It was wonderful to see (and even better that I got to go to my own home for lunch and didn’t have to be their parents picking them up!)

I have to say, It’s a shame that I didn’t get a chance to spend more time at the school before it ended. As odd as it sounds to me, I really enjoyed being there. I started to get to know the classrooms, the students, and the teachers, and really felt at home going to the school each day and playing with the kids at recess. Granted, this feeling may have been aided by the fact that it was so close to summer that the students were always excited and fun to be around. Or it was because I was treated like a rockstar everyday, which helps any situation. (It gets better than what I shared in my last post. Yearbooks came out this week.That’s right. I was literally signing autographs at recess to a hoard to students surrounding me. “Brother Casey! Sign my yearbook, sign my yearbook!” That was new for me.)

I think my favorite interaction with one of the students, though, came in the kindergarten classroom yesterday. I’m sitting there during their year-end party coloring with a girl when she all of the sudden looks at me and begins an interrogation: “Awe you mawied?” Now you have to understand that what I absolutely loved about talking to this girl is that she always came off as a bit crazy. Hilariously crazy. I mean… she’s in kindergarten.. what do you expect? Her hair was always going 100 different ways, her eyes could not possibly open any wider, and she always talked to everyone like she had just discovered the cure for cancer. With that image in your head, “AWE YOU MAWIED?!?!” might be more accurate. But it didn’t stop there. When I said no, that I was not married and that I had no kids, and explained to further interrogation why it was that I was single and childless, she looked me right in the eye and ordered, “GO FIND A WIFE!” Seriously, she was not messing around. This was not a request. When I explained, in fact, that I lived with two priests, I thought her eyes were going to pop right out of her eyes. “WHAAAAT?? YOU LIVE WITH PWIESTS?!” The whole interaction, her innocence, her matter-of-fact orders, and the shattering of her tiny worldview, had me laughing all day long. I told a parent about it, who responded with a similarly funny interaction: “When I met her, I said ‘hi ______.’ With squinted, skeptical eyes, she glared at me, ‘What do you mean by ‘hi’…?” I can’t help but laugh out loud picturing the situation as I type now.

The amazing this is that I could share a dozen stories like this, of things I will never forget and really touched me, after just a brief time with the students. I don’t know if it was simply that I had not been in an elementary school since I was a student myself, or the fact that I was given immediate trust by the students and enormous leeway by the teachers to jump in and out of their day, but I really did see my time there as a joyful, worthwhile ministry experience in a way I never expected. Part of it, I’m sure, was the overwhelming nostalgia I had as I walked into every classroom: “Oh… I remember when I was in 5th grade…” There’s just something so wonderful about being a kid, and seeing them with so much enthusiasm and problems that seemed so insignificant to me now, brought me back to a simpler time for sure. That’s not to diminish their experience as “childish” and thus insignificant, though. Quite the opposite, actually. Being able to remember back to my own elementary school days and seeing how truly formative certain experiences have been in who I became as a teenager and now an adult, I realized how important it is to give children quality, life-building experiences; to give them the attention and formation that they need is no easy task but is one that is worthy of the best and brightest people today. By no means do I ever want a full-time job in an elementary school, but I have to admit that I was so moved by these kids that I simply can’t imagine not having some involvement in elementary school ministry throughout my life as a friar. With that sort of joy all around, how can I not?

Elementary School Rock Star

Even though we arrived in D.C. from our road trip only five days ago, it seems like ancient history at this point. What a week it’s been! After a day of rest (and laundry!) I packed up what I needed and headed for my summer assignment: Triangle, VA. I was excited to get started and didn’t want to waste any time. They certainly didn’t waste any time with me either…

My first day was a half day, a nice way to ease into the summer. I helped Fr. Kevin pick up his broken down truck, met some people at the office, and found my way around the place.

My second day was not a half day.

Starting with mass at 8:45am, I ended up being on my feet until almost 9:30pm. Between the elementary school, ministry group meetings, and planning/teaching my first “How to Read the Bible” class (we had 28 people the first night), it was a full day. I did stop for two hours to sign up for a gym and work out, I took some time to eat lunch and dinner, and truth be told, I took a 15 minute nap. Outside of that, though, I can honestly say that I was being productive the whole day!

Funnily enough, I happened to talk to my mom after it all and her reaction was perfect: “Well think of it this way. It’s only for eight weeks, so enjoy what you can but know that it won’t be that long.” I had to laugh. “What are you talking about? This is what I’ve been waiting for. Through all the workshops, classes, seminars, days of recollections, and “formation of my first couple of years, I finally get to do what inspired me to be a friar in the first place, and what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life as a friar. I’m sad that it’s only eight weeks!” The whole day was wonderful, and while the two days following were a bit lighter, they were filled with new experiences and high energy ministry.

The highlight so far has been working at the elementary school attached to the parish. These kids are awesome. And given that it’s the end of the year and I wear a habit, I’m free to knock on any door at any time of the day and interrupt class to have some fun. I’ve done show and tell, answered questions, taught them about the friars, and in one english class, taught them how “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is a real sentence. I’m not sure that they believed me. On Wednesday I got to see their school play, “Disney’s Mulan,” today I was a part of their final school mass of the year in which the 8th graders passed on the “light of leadership” to the 7th graders (very touching moment), and spent a couple of hours playing soccer, keep away, four square, and learning gymnastics at recess.

Which brings me to the title of the post: I realized today that it took no time at all to become an absolute rock star. All day long students were yelling “BROTHER CASEY,” coming to give me hugs, wanting to tell me all about their artwork or where they were going over the summer, and generally just being giddy in my presence. And do you know what I say? It’s about time. Only 10-20 years late, elementary school kids finally think I’m cool. High fives all around.

And while most of what I want to share is just a superficial, fun reflection on the week, I’m realizing quickly that there could be a deeper to this small experience. As friars, especially ones with a lot of energy and a willingness to serve, it’s easy to become real “rock stars” at a parish. Given the poor experiences so many have had with rigid and un-pastoral priests in the past, showing a little respect, a good sense of humor, and halfway decent preaching is enough to really excite people. In my brief travels around the province, I see it in one place after another: “Father X is amazingI We love him so much. He’s so much better than the guy at the other parish. We are so blessed to have a priest like him!” In so many of our places, we are blessed with parishioners that support and even adore us in what we do, even if what we do is not all that special (like walking into a 5th grade classroom in a habit. I have done nothing but show up to deserve this rock star status!)

And here’s where we need to be attentive: while we love that our parishioners are thrilled to have us there to serve them, it is very easy to take our newfound rock star status too seriously and actually think that we more special than we actually are. There is nothing wrong with being charismatic, hard-working, and self-sacrificing in a way that people want to shower us with praise. Don’t get me wrong. Look at John Paul II and Francis. The affect they shared with others in such an open and unrestrained is a wonderful gift, and it’s no wonder that they are so beloved worldwide. Following their example is not a bad thing. The issue for us, then, is how we deal with whatever praise we receive. Do we morph into an inward-focusing, self-involved diva with an inflated sense of self? Or do we remain humble in our praise, thriving on people’s affirmations but remaining a servant of God and God’s people? My guess is that it’s a tough line to toe. How could it not? Everyone loves affirmation and to feel that we’re important. Think about having a job in which, for better or for worse, you do something that the majority of people can’t or is not allowed to do, you are in high demand, and people love you for it. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for an enlarged ego if you ask me.

Luckily, that’s why we have the fraternity. Not only do I have excellent examples of rock star priests that are all things for all people, men that show me how to struggle to remain humble amidst praise, I have the brothers that will always be there to serve some humble pie when I need it. Sure, the 5th graders may think I’m the coolest guy in the whole world, but my brothers at home know that I’m an unpleasant person in the mornings and that I can be kind of a slob, and they’re going to be there to remind me when I forget. For this reason, I don’t know if I will ever reach true rock star status in the places I serve like some of my brothers, but as long as I have brothers around showing me the way (and willing to hold up the mirror when I need to see the true “me”), being a  “lesser brother”  will always be more important to me than being a rock star.

Bury My Heart at St. Anthon-knee

On the road by 6:30 Saturday morning, Lalo and I were off to our final destination: Greenville, SC. Long-time readers will know that Greenville is where I went to college (Furman University) and is also where I first discerned religious life. Naturally, I have an affection for Greenville that I simply do not share with other places in the world, and you may notice a bias in this video. For this, I do not apologize. Greenville is a fantastic city with incredible people and I would move there in a heartbeat if I were able. (Interestingly enough, Fr. Patrick Tuttle, OFM, featured in this video, just had an article written about him in the Greenville News. You can read it here.)

Since the final day of traveling was more of a sprint than a journey, and since our destination was our normal home, not a new or interesting destination, I’ve decided that this video will be the last one of the road trip. I want to thank everyone who supported us along the way, and I really hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did.

Tomorrow I head to Triangle, VA, where I will spend eight weeks at St. Francis Church teaching, preaching, listening, organizing, and maybe even some sleeping! It’s going to be a great summer for sure, and now that I’ve gotten a taste for movie making, I may even show you what life is like at some point!

There Were Some Nice Things Too

After talking with a few people over the past few days, I realized that I may have been a little too harsh on New Orleans given my limited experience. I still won’t say that I had a good experience, but given all that it has to offer, I’d be willing to give it another try with the right tour guide. Anyway, when I went back I was able to find enough good footage from the day to share another video. Check it out and tell me what you think!

In other news, the videos are two days behind the actual experience, so we made it back to Washington, D.C. just a few hours ago after a long day of traveling. It was a great trip, with a lot to reflect on and much more to share than I have already. Look for a video about our experience in Greenville tomorrow, a few reflections about the experience in the coming weeks, and after I’m able to bring it all together, a much longer video that will try to give an overall narrative to the experience. I hope you enjoyed our trip! We certainly did!

Opportunity in New Orleans

Bourbon Street was fun for sure, just not my type of fun!

Bourbon Street was fun for sure, just not my type of fun!

Of all that we’ve seen so far on our travels, our trip yesterday stands out as the most unlike the rest. The scenery, friary, and city all presented an enormous contrast to the previous four places. Sadly, I can’t say that all of these were for the better.

On the trip itself, we saw two things we had yet to see in three days of travel: water and traffic. With the exception of about 2 minutes of drizzle while driving in Texas, we had seen absolutely no water, in any form, on our trip. No rivers, lakes, storm clouds, or oceans. That was drastically different as we drove through Houston and Louisiana. There was water everywhere. Every ten minutes, it seemed, we passed a lake or marsh, crossed a bridge, or found a flooded field. Twice we crossed bridges that took more than twenty minutes to cross over what I can only assume was alligator-infested swamps. Three times the water even came from above, pouring down rain and lightning, unfortunately slowing us down.

But that wasn’t the only thing that slowed us down. For the first time in four days, we actually saw enough cars in one place to have traffic. It was strange, actually. Having just driven 1000 miles through desolate places with no one around, it was almost jarring to see cars around us, billboards on the highway, and frankly, signs of civilization more than once an hour. To see houses, stores, entertainment, and civil structures seemed so foreign after what we had just seen.

And maybe that biased our perception a little bit, wishing we were back on the open road, but when we got to New Orleans we didn’t like what we saw. To say that the city was dirty is an understatement. I knew that Bourbon Street had more to it than what tv networks are allowed to show during football games, but I had no idea it was so disgusting. The bars looked fun and the street performers were excellent (saw a guy slide 10 feet on his head), but I couldn’t get over the fact that there was a strip club on every block, often not very discrete, and the clientele walking the street that had no problem going without “proper” clothing, vomiting, or smoking… “cigarettes.” Oh, and the smell. Without even a drink, I almost became like others before me, vomiting on Bourbon Street.

Despite crossing the Mississippi by bridge, we still got quite wet!

Despite crossing the Mississippi by bridge, we still got quite wet!

Obviously, though, that was not the entire city. So I don’t get angry emails telling me that Bourbon Street doesn’t represent the whole city, we did see other parts as well. There were some very cool parts, don’t get me wrong. We saw some of the historic places, heard some great jazz music, walked past some upscale restaurants near the water. Overall, I think, we felt its charm. It is definitely a historic city with a lot of night life, and I can see why it has great appeal.

But the fact of the matter is, despite its iconic images and history, the majority of New Orleans is in need of serious help. For a city that already had a lot of poor people, Hurricane Katrina had a lasting effect on the poorest and most marginalized, those unable to move or rebuild. Where the friars live, the roads are a mess and many of the houses are either abandoned or in disrepair.

The problem is that many people do still live there, despite the poverty and crime. Because of this, oddly enough, I see the city as more appealing now than I ever would have in my “previous life.” Even in my college days, debauchery to the scale of Bourbon Street would not have appealed to me; I was utterly disgusted by it. But as a friar, there is a lot, actually, that appeals to me. It is a poor city that needs a lot of physical (and spiritual) help, and a place where many people would be uncomfortable to go. This is the description of a place friars need to be; this is the description of a place where I feel called to be. As friars, we are called to serve the poor, with the poor, as the poor. To me, New Orleans offers quite an opportunity for that.

Unfortunately, you’ll see that there is no video for today. For starters, I was dead tired (and a bit uneasy after our evening downtown). I knew we were leaving this morning at 6:30 and decided to rest rather than work on a video. I got some cool footage of the street performers, so maybe I’ll work on that later to share.