Year for Priests: Recovering from our mistakes

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

This past week, my English students took their first major exam, which I had graded and posted to our electronic grade book prior to the start of the weekend. Since this grade book can be viewed by parents through a secure login, a few of my students found their weekend far less interesting than they would have liked.

One student, who I shall name Steve, bombed the exam and as a result is now failing my class. His parents grounded him for the weekend and from the biggest football game of the year. They also instructed Steve to e-mail me and basically beg for a way to improve his grade.

Steve is a good kid but, like so many, just hasn’t realized his full potential yet. When I received his e-mail, it was very clear to me that he would not make this mistake again as his language was abundantly apologetic and remorseful. I almost felt sorry for him (though he did bring this on himself) and quickly e-mailed him an additional assignment. When I returned home from the football game, I found his paper waiting for me since he was instructed by his parents to write the paper during game time. I responded via e-mail, asked him to make a few corrections and, in his response to me, suggest how I should apply this extra credit.

Once again, he responded with remorse and stated that any amount I was willing to apply to his exam grade would be appreciated. However, I wanted him to be specific — how much should I apply? I instructed him to be fair, but to be confident in his own effort, and then I wrote him not to apologize anymore. The lesson has been learned and it is time to move on.

No doubt, Steve was taken aback by my request to name his own score, but it is a regular practice of mine to require students to grade themselves — honestly. I used to have a confessor who used the same practice in confession, asking me to name my own penance. If I was too hard (or too easy) on myself, he would tell me, but usually he thought I was right on target. Every now and then I would try and weasel my way out and have him do the work for me, to which he would always respond that I knew myself better than he did. He reminded me that I knew both what I needed to grow and what I needed to do in order to let go of these things that hold me down. No one else can do this but me.

Now that I am in the confessional, I always remind people that the hardest part about the sacrament of reconciliation is not voicing your sins out loud (though it usually feels like it) but leaving those sins behind and walking out the door — feeling truly forgiven.

Ultimately forgiveness is the thing that is hardest to give ourselves. I have no doubt that Steve will do much better in my class, not just because of the consequences, but (hopefully) because he named forgiveness for himself. As for the rest of us: May we have the courage recognize when we are wrong, and what it takes to make it right and let it go.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May.

Click here for more in this series.

5 Responses

  1. I’ve really enjoyed these various reflections from Fr. Chris and the other priests who have been sharing their reflections over these last several weeks. i shouldn’t say I just enjoy them, I am finding them to be good food for thought for my own life. May you all be abundantly blessed in your priestly ministry!

  2. Father,
    I thought you handled the situation with aplomb. I think you are right when you say that we have to learn from our mistakes, and yes, even our sins, that God seeks to have mercy and justice in our regard. It may seem like easy grace to say that God is all merciful and that He is always ready to forgive, but when a soul seeks forgiveness, they need to understand that they have to rise up again and begin again, confident that God will give them the graces necessary to lead a better life from now on. God bless you in your work.
    Fr. Paul M. Hartley

  3. I must say that I, too, am enjoying these stories and reflections very much. You sound like you have a true priestly heart, but also that you truly love the students who have been entrusted to you. Did not the Holy Father say that young people must experience themselves as being loved by the Church? You will assist them to draw very close to the Lord, and to become the best children of God that they can become.

  4. What grade did Steve give himself and how did you respond?

  5. We need more Priests and Teachers like you–and more parents like Steve’s. Thanks for sharing and being a Priest.

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