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by Christina Sabo, Director of Marketing and Communications

Kind smiles, gentle voices, working hands, and humble hearts. These words, and so many other beautifully descriptive words, begin to define a Franciscan Friar. Families who live in the area of middle Georgia are more than likely used to seeing a familiar brown habit tied together with a three-knotted cincture (rope) walking the grounds of a Catholic parish, school, or out in the community serving the poor. What sets the Franciscan apart is a life fully devoted to serving others, mirroring the life of Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

The history of the beloved order of friars who serve and humbly lead within the middle Georgia communities is not only fascinating but dates back over 800 years. This time of year is the perfect time to learn more about Franciscans (the Order of Friars Minor) as we celebrate the Advent season and prepare for the birth of Christ. Advent is the time on our liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church when we begin to see manger scenes in our churches, homes, and within our communities portraying the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph awaiting the birth of Christ. What many do not know is that the Nativity we know so well preparing us for the start of Christmas on December 25, was created by St. Francis of Assisi in the year 1223. The creation of the Nativity inspired by the incarnation of the World coming to us in the flesh, also shares the same anniversary of the official rule being approved for the Order of Friars Minor – both founded by St. Francis of Assisi.

I was recently blessed to sit with Father Casey Cole, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar and the chaplain of Mount de Sales Academy, to talk about his vocation to Franciscan life and our Catholic faith. The main topic of discussion was this year’s 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscans and how they recently came together as one united Province for the first time within the United States (its headquarters is only an hour away from Macon in Atlanta).

Fr. Casey Cole, O.F.M., on-campus at Mount de Sales Academy shooting video footage and taking photos. (photo credit: Lightly Focused/Mount de Sales Academy)

Fr. Casey Cole, O.F.M., A Beloved Franciscan Friar and Chaplain

Every Thursday morning during the school year at Mount de Sales, students reverently rush to take a seat in Zuver Amphitheater to listen to Father Casey Cole speak. He engages students after homeroom on a variety of topics, spreading the message of the Gospel in eloquent and relatable ways. Upon his installation as chaplain, Fr. Casey asked Mount de Sales Academy for time to give the student body, faculty, and staff the opportunity to gather and pray together as a community. This request evolved into Fr. Casey’s “Thursday Thoughts.” In no time at all, Thursday mornings became the favorite part of the week on campus—which is evident in the expression of tranquility and joy on everybody’s faces.

Fr. Casey’s Thursday Thoughts are just one of the many moments in which the work of the Holy Spirit comes to fruition on campus at Mount de Sales Academy. As the chaplain, Fr. Casey regularly encourages the people around him to be good stewards and live out the virtues of our Catholic faith, particularly by emulating the work of St. Francis.

The Journey Towards Vocation

Fr. Casey Cole, O.F.M. at the Mount de Sales Academy “Candlelight Carol, ” an annual tradition during the Advent season similar to the Festival of Lessons and Carols within the Catholic Church. (photo credit: Lightly Focused/Mount de Sales Academy)

Fr. Casey grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While he was raised Catholic, he didn’t feel energetic or excited about his faith in his youth. Fr. Casey recalls that he believed in God and knew his faith was important, but didn’t feel that religion was. In his early years, Fr. Casey and his family were members of a parish that, at the time, he believed was mundane and lacked zeal. He can remember feeling that Mass was boring, unstimulating, and pointless.

When he was 14, Father moved with his family from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. There, his faith began to flourish, and his sense of discipleship grew. His new parish in North Carolina was vibrant and full of life and had a thriving youth program. There, he could engage with friends, talk to the girl he liked, and hang out with his fellow baseball players. The gym attached to the church of his new parish held over 200 teens every Sunday night after Mass for youth group.

“I had the freedom to do what I liked and see what I [could] like,” he said. “My faith was not something that I had to do; I enjoyed it, and the feeling grew. I became a leader within my youth group. At that time, I felt a [true] ownership of my faith and wanted to share it. It was because of these experiences that I went on to college to study religion, wanting to become a youth minister myself.”

While attending Furman University, Father minored in poverty studies, which opened him up to new experiences and Catholic social teaching. During these years, he began to contemplate all that is wrong in the modern world and how we have an answer to so much of it. He studied the works and life of St. Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day as well as letters written by Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. Ultimately, his studies led him to the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi. He realized that “the Catholic Church isn’t just a Church with nice thoughts; it is a Church that has something to give the world!”

Franciscans gathered for at the Unification as one Province in Kansas City, MO. (photo credit: Fr. Casey Cole, O.F.M.)

Fr. Casey began to feel called to the life of a religious one summer during college when he lived within his campus parish with three other students. His campus minister was a Franciscan friar, and he got to know him well that summer. While Father was away from his girlfriend, he realized that community life was satisfying and felt an unexplainable intimacy with the Lord. In that moment, the seed of something greater was planted within his heart, and he began to understand that God was calling to him to take the first steps of a new journey.

Father Casey had always imagined that he would pursue the vocation of marriage and family. Now, he felt that this life was not what the Lord was calling him to do. Seeing the work of the friars on campus and within the campus parish led to a two-year period of prayerful discernment. During his time, Father traveled to Philadelphia to work directly with the Franciscan friars at the St. Francis Inn (where Mount de Sales Academy students will be traveling to serve the poor in January).

Working there gave him serenity amid the chaos that comes from tending to so many in desperate need. He discovered a love of helping the poor and destitute that felt like it was a fulfillment of the Lord’s call.

“I was already pretty much living the Franciscan vows,” said Fr. Casey. “I lived close to poverty as a college student, I didn’t have a romantic interest, and I practiced obedience living with people I didn’t have things in common with or liked. I felt comfortable, very happy, and it just felt … right.”

Saying Yes to the Lord

The final answer came to Fr. Casey in one specific and beautiful moment. “I remember going to the chapel to take a nap during that summer, because it was quiet [and] peaceful, and it was the only building with air conditioning. The weather outside was just hot. I sat that day in front of the tabernacle alone. Something inside me knew that I wanted to be a Franciscan, that I had made up my mind months ago, [and] I was just afraid to admit it. It was in that moment that I said those words out loud—‘I want to be a friar’—and immediately felt a great sense of calm.”

When you speak to Fr. Casey about his journey to his vocation, God’s plan for him is apparent. The way in which he speaks is captivating yet peaceful, just as one would imagine the tone of St. Francis.

Fr. Casey is talented in reaching the masses and connecting to youth in ever-changing ways, answering Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a “new evangelization.” He began writing a blog upon entering the Franciscans in 2011, and since then, he has produced videos for multiple YouTube channels, hosted two podcasts, and published three books. He also uses Instagram and TikTok to reach people around the world.

“Throughout all of my discernment within my life, there has been an evangelical zeal,” Fr. Casey explains. “Whether it’s the cross, Stranger Things, or film, I find something I love, and I want to share it with people. I want to talk about it. The friars helped me with that. St. Francis was a preacher; that’s what Franscicans have done for 800 years. They go and spread the word. My vocation story continues, over the last 12 years since I made that decision, to figure out what it continues to look like. I’ve done many different things. If I were to define my vocation, it would be to care for the poor and evangelize.”

Fr. Casey playing basketball with Mount de Sales Academy students. (photo credit: Fr. Casey Cole, O.F.M.)

Reflections of a Beloved Friar and Priest

Two current Mount de Sales Academy faculty shared heartfelt reflections about Fr. Casey’s work, his weekly Thursday Thoughts, and the blessing that he is to the community, especially for the students—the future of the Church:

“Fr. Casey’s willingness to spend time with the students allows him to be present [as they] share their school days with him. It’s been so great to have a priest who is aware of some of the day-to-day struggles our students face and who can sincerely share the Gospel with them in light of this presence. Students are very comfortable seeing him in classrooms or in everyday spaces and are great at including him in their conversations and interactions. Fr. Casey is never content with having students come to him; he is always looking for ways to engage them and give of his time for their benefit.”

“Fr. Casey addresses difficult and challenging situations and themes of ‘everyday life,’ and he repaints them through a Biblical and Scriptural perspective. His personal and communal challenge during Thursday Thoughts is to see the other side of the ‘coin’ and rethink or reapproach our ideas and attitudes. He challenges and exhorts us to put on different lenses and see our situations and neighbors through the eyes of Christ, usually up-ending and retweaking accepted societal norms and ways that we engage with and encounter our neighbors. Fr. Casey brings a perspective enjoined by Christ to the students that is both spiritually refreshing individually while joyfully continuing Jesus’ mission at Mount de Sales Academy to spread the Gospel message.”

(L to R) Minister General Massimo Fusarelli, OFM and Provincial Minister Br. Lawrence Hayes, OFM, of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe share a brotherly embrace after Br. Lawrence Hayes is installed as Provincial Minister. (photo credit: Br. Frank Jasper, OFM)

One Province, United in Brotherhood

The Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe defines itself by stating, “The Franciscan friars of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a coast-to-coast Catholic brotherhood devoted to living the Gospel in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. They serve the poor, the forgotten and the marginalized alongside people of goodwill located across the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.”

During the 1800s, there was a cultural struggle, or kulturkampf, in Germany that spread to various parts of Europe. Franciscans from different nations saw the need and opportunity to serve immigrant communities in the United States during this time and began establishing themselves on American soil. Due to this continued rapid growth and movement, the Order of Friars Minor within the U.S. was mainly directed by language—the Germans served the Germans, the Italians served the Italians, the Poles served the Poles, and so on. During this time, there was a natural overlap of provinces, but it didn’t become an issue until long after these groups integrated into American culture.

The new Provincial Administration of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe poses with the Minister General and General Delegate. (photo credit: Br. Octavio Duran, OFM)

As Fr. Casey explained, “Over the past 200 years, Franciscans came to realize, ‘Wait, we are all the same friars, and we all speak the same language. Why do we have seven provincials, seven vicars, seven vocation directors, seven finance councils, and seven of everything separately?’ What the friars came to realize at that time is that more time was being spent with so many different friars in those roles that it was taking time away from being out in the world doing the work.”

About 20 years ago, several of the provinces started discerning the possibility of uniting together as one province. The original plan was to do so in 2020. Due to the pandemic and what came along with it, they pushed it to 2023—the same year as the 800th anniversary of the ratification of the Order and St. Francis’ creation of the Nativity.

Read more about the Unification for the Order of Friars Minor in the United States here

The Nativity, Narrated by Fr. Casey Cole

As you continue to prepare your heart for Christmas, I invite you to listen to a history of the Nativity created for Mount de Sales Academy and narrated by Fr. Casey by visiting this link. I encourage you to listen together with your family in heartfelt prayer, closing your eyes and taking a step back in time to the year 1223 with St. Francis of Assisi.

From all of us at Mount de Sales Academy, Merry Christmas, and as the Franciscans say it best, “peace and all good.”.