Bishop Robert Casey: Call to priesthood came early

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Bishop Robert Casey: Call to priesthood came early

Bishop-elect Robert Casey is to be ordained Sept 17, 2018
Bishop Robert Casey prays during Mass at St. Bede the Venerable Parish, 8200 S. Kostner Ave., on July 8. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
From left: Bishop Robert Casey; his sister Cathy Condon; his niece Elizabeth Condon; his brother Rich Casey, Rich’s wife Dana Casey; his parents Margaret and Michael Casey; his sister Pat Casey; and his niece Anna Casey. The photo was taken at Lough Gara in Ireland during a 2015 family trip. (Photo provided)
Rich (in blue jacket) and Bob Casey pretend to fish from their garage in a puddle in the driveway of their home in Alsip in May 1973. (Photo provided)

In 2003, Bishop Robert Casey took time off between his time as rector of Casa Jesús and taking up his assignment as pastor of Our Lady of Tepeyac Parish.

He spent 40 days walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage was not easy, filled as it was with days of walking challenging terrain in 100-degree heat.

But the journey offered insights, many unexpected.

There was the “sad” experience of attending Mass along the route and finding himself in nearly empty churches with bad music and dull homilists.

“I found myself saying ‘I’m sorry’ to people I invited to come to Mass with me,” Casey said.

There was the day at the well.

“There was this well,” Casey said. “It was supposed to be a holy well. The story was if you washed your feet in the well, you wouldn’t have any foot problems for the rest of the pilgrimage.”

Even if that wasn’t true, the idea of cooling his feet on a hot day was appealing, so Casey turned off the main path when he saw the way to the well. A pilgrim on a bicycle was coming the other direction; he tried to wave Casey off.

“He was saying, ‘Don’t go,’ but I wanted to go to the well,” Casey said. “So I went on.”

He got there and found an area around a shelter, littered with trash.

“It was like they had an all-night party the night before,” Casey said.

There was a young man there, but he offered no greeting or welcome, and when Casey asked to use the bathroom, the man pointed to an open field.

“Go there,” he said. “He seemed very unfriendly, even though he was probably just hungover and grumpy.” 

Casey soon turned and left, and when he encountered another pilgrim heading for the well, he warned him away, just as the first pilgrim had done with him.

“I walked along feeling so sad that this holy well was lacking hospitality,” he said. “I prayed over it, and the thought came to me: Is this what it’s like for people coming to the church? They come into our church expecting to have an experience of the holy, and how do we receive them?”

Casey, 50, grew up in Alsip, the fourth of five children in his family. His father, Michael, was a butcher; his mother, the late Margaret, was a registered nurse.

He attended public elementary schools and Marist High School, graduating in 1985.

It was while he was at Marist that he was first invited to consider whether he had a vocation to the priesthood. He was assigned to interview a priest or a member of a religious community, and when he was finishing his conversation, Father William Lyons, pastor of St. Terrence in Alsip, turned the interview around and asked whether he ever thought about being a priest. He said no.

But the next year, on an Encounter school retreat, when he was told to write a letter that would be mailed to his parents, he wrote that he thought he might have a vocation to the priesthood. At the end of the retreat, while the students sat with their parents, they were surprised with the news that the letters would be passed out for the parents to read on the spot.

“I thought I had a few more days,” Casey said. “I told my father he couldn’t open it, because it was to him and Mom, and she was at work until 11.”

So they read the letter in the kitchen late that night, after his mother got home from work.

“From that moment, they were very supportive,” Casey said. “They always told us, you have to do what you are called to do. They really encouraged us to be responsible and choose wisely.”

Michael Casey, Casey’s father, said he was not shocked by the news.

“He always was religiously inclined. He was an altar boy and so forth,” the senior Casey said.

His younger brother, Rich Casey, a suburban hospital administrator, recalls Casey as a good big brother. The two shared a room when they were growing up, and “there were times with tape down the middle of the floor and all that,” he said. But he also remembers his brother offering guidance and telling him stories at night.

His brother has used his gift of storytelling well, Rich Casey said.

“He’s a phenomenal preacher,” Rich Casey said. “He can talk and tell a story. He’s got that ability to have an entire church full of people listening.”

He’s also easy to talk to, Rich Casey said, which might be why it made sense when he learned his brother was considering the priesthood.

“It wasn’t shocking to me,” Rich Casey said. “At the same time, I don’t think I really understood why he was so great at it until I was older and could understand him better.”

After high school, Robert Casey went to Niles College of Loyola University, then the archdiocesan college seminary, where he met Bishop Ron Hicks for the first time. By the time he graduated, he knew he was called to be a priest — but he thought he was called to be a priest in a religious community. After graduation, he spent a year in the Passionist community in St. Louis.

That was enough to tell him that the community was not for him.

“I found my life outside the community,” he said, “at the Newman Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and at my job outside the community.”

He started at Mundelein in the fall of 1990 with, among others, Hicks, who had taken a year after Niles College to work in an orphanage in Mexico; and with Father David Boettner, vicar general of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee.

“The first thing you notice about Bob Casey is his Irish smile,” Boettner said. “He’s got that big grin, and he just makes everybody feel comfortable.”

Casey stood out early as a leader, serving as prefect of the dormitory, which meant organizing and coordinating activities with his classmates.
“He did a great job with that, and it’s not easy leading your peers.”

Boettner and Casey spent a summer together exploring Mexico and working on their Spanish.

“We probably learned as much Spanish traveling around as we did in school,” Boettner said.

Casey has not sought easy assignments, Boettner said.

“In his roles as pastor, Bob always chose to be in places where he could meet people at their need,” he said. 

His first assignment after ordination was as associate pastor at St. Ita Parish. In 1998, Cardinal George named him associate director of Casa Jesús, a house of discernment for men from Latin America who were considering whether they had a call to the priesthood, while he was serving in his last year at St. Ita. In 1999, Casey became the full-time director there. 

Casey said that he enjoyed his ministry at Casa Jesús, but he missed parish work. “It’s the opportunity to walk with people on their lives’ journey,” he said. “To be with people at their best moments and their worst moments and their most ordinary moments, it’s a privilege to be there and to be able to awaken everybody to the presence of Jesus in the moment.”

He took time to reassess and reaffirm his vocation while he walked the camino, he said.

“I was part of this community as a pilgrim, and they affirmed my life choice,” Casey said. “The pilgrimage was really a little microcosm of life.”

When he returned, he served as pastor of Our Lady of Tepeyac Parish in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. In 2008, Casey co-founded Taller de José, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph that offers accompaniment to people in need. In 2009, Bishop Casey became the pastor at St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield, and in 2016, he became the pastor of St. Bede the Venerable Parish in Chicago’s Scottsdale neighborhood.  

Casey also serves on the Priests Placement Board of the Archdiocese of Chicago, assisting with the assignment process of priests to parishes, and has been part of the Priest Steering Committee for Renew My Church.

“I enjoy being a pastor,” he said. “As a pastor, you walk with and care for your flock. The challenge is going to be to shift my focus a little bit. My flock will be the pastors who are under my care, and I will have to walk with and care for them and their flocks.”

Photo: Stuart-Rodgers Photography


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