by Gordon Nary
Gordon: The best way of introducing you to our readers is to have them a link to your website. When did you launch your website and how has the site helped promote your career and interests?
Frank: I often tell people to search online for ‘Frank j Casella Chicago’ as I believe personal branding is not about a domain name or website, rather what you find on page one of search. Likewise, as with life, my identity is not so much about my name or what I do, rather who I am as a person and how I treat someone when they interact with me.
The same goes as far as how websites have helped me. The purpose of the internet is to provide information, and I view my online content to serve the main purpose of helping people to be educated and informed about my work. They also learn how they can become involved or what to do next.
By the way, during this interview I will share a number of links with your readers, to shorten my answers, and so they can better understand what I’m saying and what I mean.
Gordon: When did you join Infant Jesus of Prague (IJP) Parish and how has the Parish contributed to your spirituality?
Frank: My wife of almost three decades grew up at IJP Parish in Flossmoor, Illinois. However, we raised our children where I grew up in the next town over at St. Joe’s in Homewood. We then transferred to IJP once our children graduated from the St. Joe parish school.
There are a few ministries that I’m involved with at IJP, and the main one is Men In The Morning. Organized by Dr. Mike Hoffman, one Saturday a month the guys meet to discuss the Mass readings for that weekend, and we connect the dots on how the message relates to us as men, and the challenges we face in the workplace and at home. I don’t help to organize the group, and it’s the one men’s event that I just file in with the others and do it more for me. I learned this concept from our previous pastor, Fr. Mike Nacius, who started the group. His ‘presence’ was known there, but he did not lead it, rather he participated as another guy, not as a priest.
Frank: The vision for what we do is to nurture Catholic men’s spirituality in Chicagoland. The conferences are the Saturday after Easter each year and are open to all Catholic men in greater Chicago. Rev. Bishop Joseph Perry, our episcopal liaison, says it this way:
“We are proud to offer a few hours of respite, prayer and solid input to men across the Archdiocese on how they can live faithfully the implications of their baptism and discipleship in Christ for these times,”
The conferences are planned with a team of seven, who I can’t do without. They really are a diverse and committed group, which I personally need to keep me open-minded on things I need to think about as the director. We also have a small group of independent donors who fund the conference overhead expenses, so we are blessed with not having to look for corporate sponsors. So the ticket sales only cover the food expenses. That’s simply how the business side of the conferences is planned.
The presentations of the conferences are what we call ‘locker room style’ where we don’t have tablecloths or banners, or other fancy things. Just a sound system, tables and chairs, and we deliver the message. What we do is feed the guy’s stomach a hot breakfast, and then feed his Soul the Truth of the Word of God. Bishop presents them with a challenge. After the experience, it never fails, guys become emotional saying things like “you hit me in the heart” .. “this is what I was looking for”. They really connect things and often use the drive home to think things through and work things out in their heads. Most don’t make positive changes overnight, but baby steps over time.
I’ve been involved with Catholic men’s movement since I was a kid, as I would help my dad at Knights of Columbus events with organizing and doing the work from set up to dish cleaning. I’m a third generation KofC. I was also involved with the former Catholic Men In Action here in Chicago, the Promise Keepers movement, and then the Christian Business Men’s Committee. These organizations are where I befriended Deacon John Rangel and we got to talking with Bishop Perry, our Episcopal Vicar, and together in 2004 the three of us founded Catholic Men Chicago Southland, the apostolate that sponsors the Catholic Chicago Men’s Conference.
I have to mention sincerely that Bishop Perry is very instrumental in all of this, and the important work we are doing here. Simply put, he gets it.
The mission of Catholic Men Chicago Southland (CMCS) fosters Catholic Men in personal holiness, to make Jesus Christ the center of our daily lives - 'Living the Goodness of a Catholic Man'. Our website is at https://www.cmcsvirtues.org/
CMCS has a practical way of evangelizing Catholic men young and old, and their families, of helping them to understand what the culture often rejects – how men and women should relate to one another in complementary ways and how important husbands and fathers are to children.
Since 2004, Catholic Men Chicago Southland has reminded men and helped them to do what is in their power to do, namely, be holy and courageous men, to improve their marriages, be better fathers to their children, grow in virtue, serve the needs of others more generously, be active participants in their parishes, and be better citizens.
Gordon: As a renowned professional photographer, please share with our readers how your interest in photography developed, where you studied and how your career began.
Frank: I was actually deeply shy as a child, and photography was a way for me to express how I see the world without saying a word. Family and friends seemed to really be moved by my pictures so I kept doing it. My late parents subscribed to the Chicago Catholic Newspaper, and I always waited each week for the mailman to deliver it. I would study the pictures of the late James Kilkoyne, who was the archdiocese photographer from about 1950 until 1985. At the age of nine, I recall making the goal to become the photographer assigned to the archbishop of Chicago.
I continued to pursue other interests during my childhood, and in Junior High, at the parish school, I raised my hand to develop the yearbook for my class. This continued in high school, with the school newspaper and then the yearbook photo staff. However, freshman year I failed the photography 101 class. As my teacher explained to me, I could never figure out how to stay in the box with assignments.
That class is where I learned from my fellow students how I see through the camera viewfinder in black and white, even though it’s in color. In other words, for me to make a color picture it first has to hold up as a black and white. Because with black and white you have simply the elements of the storytelling, without the use of colors.
During the summer months of high school, I studied at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then I went on to study at Columbia College Chicago. I went to college to study documentary photography and portraiture, but that was changed as many of my instructors insisted that I study photojournalism. This is where I met John H. White, Pulitzer Prize photojournalist. He was very instrumental in my learning how to tell a story through simple moments. That was in 1984, and still today I hear John’s voice in my head with one of his many bullet point lessons on keeping in tune with the spirit of life through (my) pictures.
While in John’s class it was a requirement to make pictures for a newspaper. So then after the class, this helped me continue with weekly and daily papers until I was hired to be on staff by Chicago Catholic (which was then The New World). I was there for seven years, and more than half of them I was assigned to photograph the ministry of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin almost daily.
Not too long before the cardinal’s death, I was laid off from The New World due to budget cuts, and I then negotiated to stay as an independent contractor until Cardinal George came (back) to town as the new Ordinary. So that was the close to my childhood dream. I consider myself blessed, as many people work most of their life to meet their dreams, and I did so by the age of 26. More importantly, the letters and memories from all the lives my pictures impacted to cause positive transformation.
The other blessing and surprise were after Kilkoyne’s death. Jim’s estate presented me with his private photography collection. This meant so much to me, that even today my eyes well up as I’m saying this to you.
Once I left the archdiocese I continued working for Catholic magazines and other editorial publishers providing stock pictures, as well as produced and sold marketing postcards and brochures for (the businesses of the) many board members I met while covering the rounds with the cardinal at Catholic nonprofits.
Since the internet has been around I’ve been producing and selling Catholic Fine Art Photography - Pictures that share hope, and God’s love in the world. You can find my work at https://frankjcasella.pixels.com Over the years many people said I should make fine art photographs, but I never saw that. Online seems to be the best business model for this, and now I see what people were saying.
So that’s the short version of my photography career.
Gordon: Do you believe that great photography has a spiritual dimension? If so, please share with our readers your observations,
Frank: Yes. I believe that Catholic and religious artwork, known as Catholic Fine Art or Sacred Art, helps to make the stories of the Bible, the saints, and the teachings of The Catholic Church approachable and accessible to both practicing Catholics and people who struggle with things that may be stopping them from becoming a Catholic, or a better Catholic.
In our society today, we are very visual and people need pictures, through Catholic artwork, that are examples of goodness and hope in the world. Best said, I think, by St. Pope John Paul II Letter to Artists - 'But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world.'
However, Photography in the form of Catholic Art until recent years has not been widely accepted. It was Cardinal George for me who commissioned my work for his Christmas Greeting Card in 2010, of the Nativity at Holy Name Cathedral. Here is an example https://tinyurl.com/y7vrkf9q. Today, however, with the advancement of digital technology, the Church is accepting that photography can be an Art.
For example, often times, as you know, God presents his answer in subtle ways. Through a person, you meet, or something as simple as looking up into the sky and suddenly seeing God’s inspiration. Many people have trouble with how to do this. I’ve been told that I’m a person who can grasp answers from God by making a simple photograph that helps people grapple with God’s answers. What helped me to develop this is when I was shy as a child, it gave me the blessing (vision) to study human behavior and photograph body language through the story. Much like we have seen through Icons in Catholic Art from over the decades.
Because of all this, I collaborate with a group of the greatest living Catholic artists throughout the world on Pixels.com (Fine Art America) and was given the “keys” to curate the Catholic Art Gallery - Artist Group. You can point your mouse here. You will find not only their artwork but in the group discussion tab the topics I present where you can get to know the artists and their works.
Gordon: What social media resources do you use to promote your work and interests, and which are the most helpful?
Frank: Well this is a hot button for me, as I almost went off the deep end with social media, so I’m glad you asked this question. The most helpful platforms for my photography are the LinkedIn blog, I post a picture and a thought a few times a week on Flickr, and a wonderful community has developed through my Mailing List. For the Men’s apostolate its hands down the mailing list. The apostolate is not on Facebook because the pope is not there, but we post updates on Twitter and have not found a use for Instagram yet.
There is a difference between social media and social internet. With social media, many of us, our brains are scattered and distracted with information overload. Because of this most of us no longer make time to really think, and do the deep work that we are called to do. For example, when I remove the distraction that devices cause, I can actually get great photography done, and great writing and events are done for Catholic men.
So, with the social internet, you let people follow you directly by checking your site or subscribing to an RSS feed or email newsletter. Many people reply to the emails, and conversations begin. Its like when I was a kid in my old neighborhood, my dad would often sit on the front porch, and it wasn’t too long before a neighbor or two would walk over and chat for a bit.
One popular blogger is Seth Godin and, though I’m not a follower of him, one thing I resonate that he says is something like when you blog on a regular basis that you learn how to organize your thoughts and then answer questions clearly when asked of you. My late father often quoted that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Many of us today don’t have our thoughts clear, or we have confusion because we don’t know our ‘why’ we do what we do.
I am fond of the work of Dr. Cal Newport, who authored a book titled ‘Deep Work’ as well as Meg Meeker M.D. Both who concentrate on the impact of social media on our time. Dr. Meeker as well as an excellent book on Fatherhood.
You will find my most personal writing on my artist website blog, plus informative articles on LinkedIn and the Catholic Chicago Men Blog. When I have something to say, as part of the social internet, I post my thoughts to record them for future history, and link to resources, and not worry about present short-term followers or stats or interactions ... though I answer comments personally. I post all my stuff to my private twitter if you want to follow and digest it.
These other links may be of interest.
The concept is how Dr. Newport says, something like, when you run your own site, the reality is rigorous. If people don’t truly care about what you have to say, or don’t truly care about you, they’re not going to stick around. You have to earn their attention. This can be really, really hard.
But, I can tell you from experience that this approach is much more satisfying to produce things when you’re not feeding (what I believe is) the epidemic of our present culture of social media addiction with the likes of a dopamine hit.
I’m sure what I’ve said here is more than you asked in your question, but I think it’s important to mention how I (don’t) use social media as part how I fulfill my life mission.
My Life Mission Verse: Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” - Luke 9:62
Gordon: In closing, here is one of my favorite articles by you on LinkedIn How Do You Witness Jesus as a Catholic Man?
Franks: Thank you, Gordon! That’s one of my favorites as well.