The Deacon with the Calf Tattoos
by Jennifer Szweda Jordan
May 15, 2018

The tattoos on the calves. If you spot Paulist Deacon Ryan Casey wearing shorts, they might be the first things you notice.

On the right is a nautical star with the words “Every end has a start.” On the left is a question mark with the word “Life.” The latter is a reminder to, well, question life, Ryan says.

If you hang out with Ryan for a little while, the next thing you might notice is his entertainment acumen. His classmate, Paulist Deacon Mike Hennessy, points out that Ryan correctly predicted 22 of 24 Oscar winners last year.

Get to know Ryan a little more, and you’ll see the tattoos and pop culture prowess serve to connect him with others, and to convey the unconditional love at the heart of the Catholic Church. Many in his family and the Paulist community believe Ryan’s hipster style and big heart will do much to uplift the next generation of Catholics.

“He’s not that cookie cutter kind of guy. He’s a free thinking spirit,” says his mom, Sheri Casey. “If his ways don’t agree with yours, he doesn’t care. He’ll just accept you for what you are. I think that’s what we need in the Catholic Church.”

Ryan has always fit well in youth circles, and that informed his choice to enter the Paulist community.

“The more I discerned, you know, I knew I was going to be a religious community person because I’m a youth group kid,” Ryan says. “I don’t know how to do faith without being in a group, having people around me.”

In 2000, Ryan graduated from Augustana University, a Lutheran school in Sioux Falls, S.D., with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Social Welfare. He minored in African-American studies. Then he worked the college residence hall director circuit for seven years and led youth ministry groups. At one point, a few members of the the youth group he was leading nudged him into entering seminary.

Ryan, himself, was moving toward full-time ministry with youth when some of his charges told him he’d be settling for something less in that role.

“What you should be is a priest,” Ryan remembers them saying to him. “That’s what we need,”

It was a flashback to Ryan’s high school days when others saw him as a candidate for the priesthood. But this time was different. He was ready to hear the call.

“I started to kind of really contemplate things, like, wow, maybe here, you know, again people are seeing this,” Ryan says.

Meanwhile, he took on other jobs. He helped in the family catering business. He even worked as a probation officer in Rockford, Ill., for three years, which he says was consistent with his college social welfare studies. It was as much a job as a ministry.

Ryan’s wide-ranging life experiences make him real and accessible. So says Alex Fernandes, a man who went through RCIA — Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — when he wanted to return more fully to the church. Ryan was one of his guides in that process.

“He was very engaging,” Fernandes says about Ryan. “Just hearing the story from, you know, where he came from … this is the type of work he was doing, law enforcement work as a probation officer. I’m a probation officer now so I can relate.”

Ryan is open about sharing the story of his life journey with anyone, even occasionally preaching on the sidewalk to strangers. Ryan’s eclectic nature may come from the fact that he’s constantly striving to be the multi-faceted priest he says he’s always been looking for.

“That personable priest who’s willing to listen, willing to share a word of encouragement, a priest that sees people for who they are but knows that it can be so much more. You know, a little bit of that classic 1950s movie priest … like Bing Crosby,” Ryan says. “So when you combine that up, you know, I think you get the priest that can share a great message on a Sunday and then sit down and have a doughnut and coffee with you and talk about how your work week went. That’s the type of priest I would want to be.”


God-willing, Paulist Deacon Ryan Casey and Paulist Deacon Michael Hennessy will be ordained priests by Cardinal Joseph Tobin on Saturday morning, May 19, at the Paulist Fathers’ mother church, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City.  All are welcome to attend!

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer based in Pittsburgh. Listen to her full interview with Deacon Ryan here: