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.

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Year for Priests: Learning how to advance the dialogue

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

I have just completed my first month of classes at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which means that my students in Public Speaking are giving their first major presentations this week.  Everyone always enjoys “Speech Week,” not only because students get to hear other students but also because I allow the students to facilitate their own “Q&A” after their speech.

People believe that the most difficult aspects of a speech class concern the mechanics, but usually this is the easy part.  It only takes one time for students watching themselves on video to correct most of the issues, or my count of just how many times they said “um” to raise their awareness enough to cause dramatic improvement.

The more difficult issues often concern content — specifically, the student’s ability to critically defend their beliefs.  Far too many students focus their content on their own beliefs rather than considering the opinions and objections of the audience.  Though I allow students to present themselves without interruption during the speech, many students are quickly challenged by their peers during the Q&A session because the speaker failed to consider those to whom he was speaking.

The lesson is an important one:  unsubstantiated opinions sound good when you are the only one speaking, but they do very little to contribute to actual dialogue on any given topic.  This week, I am once again watching as students discover that classroom discussions are far more interesting when the data is more persuasive than the person.

All this leads me to a few thoughts regarding popular morality and “church-related” issues since many students attempt to present them during our class.  I must admit that I usually forbid issues such as the death penalty, abortion, contraception and the like as topics because (1) students are not willing to look beyond the surface reasons and therefore come up with incomplete data, and (2) three minutes is simply not enough time to tackle even one part of the issue.  However, being at this particular school, I decided to let them have at it, though I warn them about the dangers.

Today after a class discussion on abortion, one of my students asked if I would be willing to discuss the issue with his family and a few friends.  Surprised by this question, I asked him what was said in class to cause such a request.  He stated that he never thought about the issue as we discussed it after the speech, during which I asked, “how do we move beyond the preconceived notions that have left us in a stalemate, and advance the argument?  What is helpful/required for either side to listen to the opposing ideas with fresh ears?”  Needless to say, it sparked an interesting class discussion.

As I left the school, I could not help but think about the many people who would love to join in on this upcoming discussion.  Over the years, I have met several presenters who speak on moral issues with wonderful mechanics and persuasive passion, but fail to consider the opinions and objections of another’s point of view.  When this occurs, the result in society is the same as my classroom:  a series of short presentations that leads the speaker to believe something important was said, but offers little to advance the argument in a greater context.  The remedy, as my students are discovering, requires more than just good data but a totally different approach that puts the thoughts of the audience before our own.  It requires less judgment, few statements and more questions.  No doubt this is harder, but the result is almost always an “A”.

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

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Year for Priests: Improving the conversation, and diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — A parishioner sent me an e-mail asking for prayers for a priest in the U.S. who was rude and angry. I suppose there was a time when such behavior was chalked up to “Father having a bad day,” but now people wonder if “Father can handle the stress.”

Most priests do not consider what they do to be a job – it is a calling, a vocation. They may not impose any boundaries between what is work and what is play; they may refuse to distinguish between performing a role and living a life. But as demands increase, some limits have to be set. It’s fairly well-known that that ratio of priests to Catholics in the U.S. is good, compared to some other countries. And in those other places, laity, deacons and vowed religious have assumed leadership. Should we consider this model second-best or affirm it as the working of the Spirit? Such are my thoughts after reflecting on this e-mail for prayer.

For a long time, I have wanted to read the small book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives by Theodore Zeldin. The title intrigued me since, for five years, I co-hosted a radio talk show with the theme of finding spirituality in leisure. Toward the end of the book Zeldin says he is looking for a new way to look at work. He envisions a world of “shopkeepers” who do not monitor their actions on efficiency but the quality of their conversations and personal relationships. I am not going to directly apply this model to the priesthood, but his suggestion does challenge me to raise the quality of my conversation. We only have to read the gospel of John to know how powerful it must have been to have a conversation with Jesus.


Diary Entry

Today Mira, a 14 year-old Palestinian our parish group met in a town near Bethlehem, will be playing at a premier music venue, Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica. The occasion is the annual citywide series of concerts commemorating 9/11. A foundation has paid the travel expenses for this talented young pianist and her father to come here. When we have a chance to talk, she confides that Mozart is in her soul. She hears his music in her head all the time. “I will not marry. It is just my art,” she declares when touring the National Academy of St. Cecilia, where List played. She passes a picture of her idol, Mozart: “He’s too fat in that picture. He was never that way!” The girl clearly has the definitive swagger of an elite musician. With just a bit more work on technique she could be a star.

A peace dove painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

A peace dove in a flak jacket painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

And this is no small thing for the beleaguered Palestinians. Last year, under the auspices of a U.N. education agency, she visited northern Italy to speak with school children about her experience growing up stateless and now, encircled by a gray cement “anti-terror” wall, a veritable prisoner in her own town, unable to leave it without official permission.


One of the best things about serving at “the American church in Rome” is being able to celebrate a wedding. This week the couple could not help gazing around at the colorful frescos as we have our planning meeting in the sanctuary. It took them over an hour to drive in from the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, where they are staying. Living in the Italian countryside, if just for a few days, is part of this dream wedding. Immediately after the ceremony, the best man rushed out the door to view Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, ensconced under a skylight in the church across the street.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Year for Priests: A diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — I’d like to take “spiritual perfection” as my theme for my time on the “Year for Priests” blog. You may find me musing on the food of Italy or an incident during the handing out of tickets to the weekly papal audience (if you are in Rome, just about every Tuesday from 5 p.m. is “ticket distribution” day; drop in), but I like to think that reflections on both the sublime and ridiculous can contribute to our perfection of spirit.

* * *

Diary entry — Sept. 1: I find the chapel of St. Monica just to the left of Sant’Agostino’s high altar. Her remains have been moved to an ornate silver coffin just beneath the chapel’s altar, on the left is her marble sarcophagus, a large side panel is from the original burial. The oil painting above includes the Latin phrase “Ubi tu ibi et ille,” a reference to Monica’s dream about her son recorded in Augustine’s Confessions:

(Book III, Chapter 11)…she saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, (8) and a bright youth advancing towards her,  joyous and smiling upon her, whilst she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But he having inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping … and she answering that it was my perdition she was lamenting, he bade her rest contented, and told her to behold and see “that where she was, there was I also.” And when she looked, she saw me standing near her on the same rule. (20) … and I tried to put this construction on it, “That she rather should not despair of being some day what I was,” she immediately, without hesitation, replied, “No; for it was not told me that where he is, there shalt thou be,” but “where thou art, there shall he be.” I confess to Thee, O Lord … Thy answer through my watchful mother … even then moved me more than the dream itself …”

Another painting has, in large letters, “Monica Ora Pro Nobis.” In Monica’s case, an especially appropriate sentiment since her entire adult life was spent in prayer for the conversion of her husband and son. Though she lived in ancient times, she is patron of quite relevant issues: abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages and, of course, “disappointing children.” It’s so good to have her in a church named after her son.

* * *

On my first trip back to Marymount International School since my return to Rome, I encountered the caper. I had passed clumps of these pink flowers hanging from the stone wall adjacent to the entrance. A teacher pointed out the famous buds which, pickled or salted, are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Yet another harvestable “weed” that contributes to unbeatable Italian food. I am not completely over the shock of finding so much of what is on my dinner table growing in patches and corners of yards — from lemons to this caper to “family” olive trees and grapevines.

Sometimes you hear about the pillaging that took place in Rome after the Roman Empire went into decline. Those who took the statues and put them on their own monuments we think should not have done it, they should have kept them where they historically were. But here is something sad and true that I had not considered: the reason so much pillage was going on during the early Middle Ages was that no one could make anything as good; every appropriation was also an admission that the past was so much better than the present. I realize that I have never lived in a time when that was true, but that I might — soon. It’s not that I have given up on the world; it’s that I have begun to question a world that believes it can stand on its own, with no higher reference point. Here, in a city steeped in the Renaissance and High Baroque, I can see what might have been. Now the case for religion has to be fresh, to each succeeding generation.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Year for Priests: How do priests set priorities for ministry?

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

Thirty years ago, in the parish in which I am now stationed, there were three priests assigned. In those days, the parish served about 1,000 Catholic households. Today there are twice as many families, and I am assigned here alone.

One result has been a necessary reordering of a priest’s activities and priorities, a challenging and sometimes painful exercise which I would entitle “The Trials of Triage.” I have had to decide, in prayer, which of my duties were simply helpful and productive and which were essential. I suspect that nearly every parish priest across America has been forced into the same kind of difficult choices.

Some examples will clarify. Ten years ago, I used to go around each month to some 30 parishioners who were homebound through age or infirmity. I would converse with them for 10 or 15 minutes, update them on parish activities, listen to their concerns and then give them holy Communion. It was one of the most satisfying parts of my ministry and, I believe, one of the most appreciated.

Similarly, every few days I would visit our local Catholic hospital, look at the patient list and visit with the four or five of our parishioners who would be there in any given week.

When a parishioner died, I would meet with the family for 30-45 minutes, offering my sympathy, learning more about the deceased person, helping the family to select Scripture readings, hymns and participants for the funeral Mass.

Over the last eight to 10 years, because of other daily demands, I have had to forgo doing each of these three activities on a regular basis. I still, of course, visit the homes of the sick for emergencies, stop in hospitals when asked to by patients or their relatives and meet with bereaved families in particular circumstances. But for the most part, those activities are now carried out by a wonderful and pastorally sensitive nun we have been fortunate to add to our parish staff. She has also enlisted a host of lay volunteers to visit homes and hospitals. They identify for me cases of special concern, and I follow up. Once every six months, I visit each of our homebound parishioners and offer them, in addition to holy Communion, the opportunity for confession and the sacrament of the sick.

This sharing of responsibilities is, I believe, a modern necessity in order to leave the priest free to focus on his core responsibilities: celebrating the sacraments, preparing homilies, daily reading and prayer, and answering the ever-present requests to respond to parishioners’ family crises and personal problems.

There are three other duties, though, which I believe it is important for the priest to retain, and so I do.

One is to celebrate a brief prayer service at a wake. I know that this is sometimes done by a bereavement committee of parishioners but I think that a family looks particularly for a priest in such circumstances, and it gives me the opportunity to speak with the family in order to make the funeral homily more personal.

Next is baptismal preparation, especially for couples with their first child. I spend 30 to 40 minutes with each such couple a week or two before the baptism, finding out a bit about their own religious journeys and highlighting their role in sharing faith with a child. Even though I know that many parishes do this preparation in groups, and often under lay leadership, I believe that this contact keeps me in close touch with the young families who are so essential to the church’s future.

Based on the same rationale, I meet twice with each of the 30 or so couples I marry each year, in preparation for their ceremony and their marriage. (They also attend one of our diocesan programs of marriage preparation.) Both the baptismal prep and the pre-nuptial appointments normally take place in the evenings in order to accommodate work schedules; this guarantees for the priest some rather long days, but I view both opportunities as key to our parish’s life.

I fully understand that such priority-setting is personal and subjective, and I would be interested to hear how other priests make such choices and how parishioners view them. My only point is that circumstances have forced such discernment upon us and that it needs to be guided by prayer.

Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Year for Priests: Longing to be comfortable

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

This past week, I began my new assignment teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School. Therefore, I have been reflecting recently on “all things new” — new city, new house, new confreres, new job, new friends and new students. Though I feel I should be used to the “newness” brought about by moving from one assignment to the other, I think the only aspect which I have mastered is how to pack.

Of all the things listed above, it is the students that have impacted my thoughts the most for I see in them what I myself feel. In their eyes, I see the fear of the unknown; in their nervous habits, my anxiety; and in their attentiveness, my commitment to excel. And, I imagine just about any parent or teacher feels the same thing.

The difference between my students and myself lies in the past. Quite simply, the more past we have, the more we try to hold on to, and the harder it is to live in the present moment. In the new rigor of a high school classroom, I am all too aware of the independence I once knew as a university chaplain. I miss my old friends, familiar food and the quiet habits that made up my days. I miss the expected and the benefit of the doubt that only comes when you have established yourself.

While I recognize that my students do not the miss things, people and places I do, I believe we are both longing for the same thing:  to be comfortable. We long for a routine and the fulfillment of expectations. We long for the bank of good friends and good will that comes with establishment. However, the priest in me knows that comfort and the Gospel do not have a lot in common.

If God makes “all things new,” then one could argue that God makes all things uncomfortable. It is the kind of position that I believe many people hold, and the kind that keeps many on the fringe edges of religion. However if I am honest, my discomfort comes from the difficulty I find letting go of what has been. Just I have told all my new students this week, “learning is not meant to be comfortable,” so I believe God is asking me to be comfortable in the newness and to live always in the present moment. Thus, herein lies my prayer for the first few weeks of school:  May all of us — teacher, student and parent alike — find comfort in the newness and excitement in the routines that are soon to follow.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments and perhaps your own addition to a prayer for students and teachers beginning a new school year.

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

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Year for Priests: No longer on the front lines

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

One of my favorite “one-liners” comes from Precious Blood Father Anthony Gittons, who wrote, “We cannot transform ourselves, but we can create the space for transformation to occur.”  Over the years, I have applied this to my life on an almost daily basis, but recently I have begun to understand it in the context of those to whom I minister — or my “audience.”

One of the very quick lessons I have learned is that, as a priest, I am no longer on “the front lines.”  As I walk around campus and around town, I am very aware that I am set apart, not because of my own actions or preference, but because that is what people need (despite the objection of some, by far I have found the majority of people want their priest to be different — to represent an alternative way of life).  The collar I now wear around my neck is a sign and at times a barrier that does not allow me to be as close to people as was once possible.  However, I do not see this as a negative; rather, it has caused me to shift the audience of my ministry.

If the ministry of the priest is modeled on Christ, then it seems my primary ministry is to those ministers who are close to me, for it is they who will go out to live and work on the front lines long after I have moved on.  Though I continue to speak to the “masses” on certain occasions, I have realized — at least for the moment — that my job is to be a minister to the ministers.  After all, this seems to speak to the spirit of Vatican II that emphasizes the role of the laity as those who bring the Gospel into the world around us (see Gaudium et Spes or Apostolicam Actuositatem).

At its very core, I am discovering that ministry is relational and reciprocal.  The ministers with whom I work every day know me as Chris, with all of my gifts, weaknesses and quirks.  They are close enough to see the finesse and the nuance — things many people in the Sunday congregation do not want and are not ready to learn.  Likewise, my priesthood is shaped by them.  So much of what I do in ministry seems to concern creating safe environments for people to encounter each other and touch the Divine.  In the context of ministry, I think this is what Father Gittons meant:  “to create the space for transformation to occur.”

I should add, by the way, that these are working thoughts.  Should you have any thoughts on who the audience of a priest is, I would love to hear them!

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and will be teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan beginning in late summer.

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Year for Priests: One small plan to encourage vocations

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

Our modest-sized Diocese of Albany, N.Y., is in the middle of a transformation.  Within the next two years, 33 churches will merge or close, about 20 percent of our worship sites.

One of the reasons is the outward migration of Catholics, from the cities to the suburbs.  The other — and more compelling — factor is the decline in the number of priests.  In the planning for these changes, our study group (“cluster”) was made up of five parishes, all well-established city parishes with long and storied histories.  When I was ordained, in 1966, these five parishes were served by 14 full-time priests.

As of the fall of this year, these same five parishes will have only two priests.  The consolidation plan calls for four of these parishes to merge into two and the fifth to be served by a part-time priest as a sacramental minister.

The situation begs the question, “What happened?”  Why, when seminaries were bulging at the seams in the 1960s, are they somewhat-suddenly empty?  What has changed since then?

Theories abound:  there is the increasing secularization of culture, a growing grasp for material security.  There is the current unpopularity of any long-term commitments, marriage being the first example.  There is the shame that came to the priesthood over the tragedy of sexual abuse of children (although, to be fair, the decline in priestly vocations long antedated the exposure of that reprehensible behavior).

I believe, though, that the single most significant factor is this:  priests themselves are not encouraging vocations to the priesthood.  We just don’t ask enough people whether they’ve ever thought about it.

Recently our diocese sponsored a workshop for priests.  We were asked to identify reasons for our reluctance to steer young men toward the seminary.  The responses varied: for some, it was dissatisfaction with certain teachings of the church — mainly, mandatory celibacy and an all-male priesthood.  For others, it was an awkwardness in speaking privately with boys or young men at all, lest that be confused in their minds (or their parents’) with the well-publicized scandal of years gone by.  For me, it was something else: a desire to avoid the notion that the priesthood is the only way to be a faith-filled and effective disciple of Jesus.

Whatever our reservation, we were encouraged, “Get over it!”  The stakes are too high, we were told: there are people in America deprived of regular Eucharist because there’s no priest to celebrate.  Statistical data is ample:  Catholic priests are far happier and more fulfilled in their work than any other subset of American males — far more likely, given the opportunity, to make the same vocational choice again.  Why not trumpet that fact?

A course of action was determined: in five different sites in our diocese, over the next several months, our bishop, Howard Hubbard, will have a simple pasta supper for young men who might make good priests.  Each of us is asked to identify one or two such potential candidates from our parish and bring them to one of these dinners.  The agenda is short:  we’ll go around the table, and each priest will say in a few words what drew him to the priesthood, and then we’ll eat.

The plan is in place; the results are still to be seen.  I’m thinking it might work — and praying, too.

Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Year for Priests: Saved by our own words

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Growing up, my father used to remind me to be careful what I said, “because all too often, our words come back to haunt us.” I am sure we have all heard it before and often found it to be true, but then there are occasions when our words come back to save us.

A few days ago a good friend of mine was in town from overseas.  In her own country, she is very close with an older woman, who I will call “Jane.”  Nearly 50 years ago, Jane worked alongside a priest, who I will call “Joe,” before he left the priesthood and his own country. I have never spoken with Jane, but I imagine her to be a person of great faith, fidelity and love, for she communicated to my friend that she has prayed for Joe all these years, though lost touch with him.  However she is close with Joe’s brother, who informed her that Joe is now dying.

When Jane found out that my friend would be visiting the same city where Joe resides, Jane asked her to visit Joe and tell him that he and his many good works had never been forgotten. Jane passed along an envelope containing old pictures and the copy of a homily that Joe had given to Jane, at her request, when he was still a priest.  My friend asked if I would come along, for company to be sure, but also so that I might anoint him if he desired.

When we arrived at Joe’s bedside, the nurses warned us that he was not able to speak much and rarely understood his environment anymore.  My friend sat beside Joe and introduced herself as a friend of Jane’s and we watched as Joe slowly brought his head around to fix his eyes on the eyes of my friend. Clearly he understood. After lifting his frail body into a more comfortable position, we shared the pictures that were sent with us. My friend then unfolded the old homily — Joe clearly recognized it as his own penmanship — and began to read it to him.

. . . The only complaint Christ ever had on earth was that his friends did not trust him. Men could crucify, scourge, hate and betray him, but he did not complain. But when his own friends doubted his care for them, immediately he asked: ‘Why do you doubt? . . .’ Why? Because the love God wants from us is a love that depends on him. In turn he wants us to show the same care for others. He speaks to us through the Gospels. But he also speaks to us through the people we meet and the events that happen. . . .

As my friend read, I watch Joe’s eyes begin to fill with water. I had never met Joe until this moment. I have no idea why he left the priesthood and what he did before he entered this hospital. However, I could not help but feel that he was hurt by it all and that my friend was the angel God was sending Joe to comfort him before he passed from this world.

After my friend finished reading, I asked Joe if he would like to receive the sacrament of anointing. He nodded yes. As I traced the oil on his head and hands, his eyes once again filled with tears, and I wondered how long it had been since he had received a sacrament.

After we said a few prayers, we left Joe holding the homily he had written some 50 years ago. I don’t know that we will ever get a chance to see him again, but I am quite sure that this man who had clearly done so much for God’s kingdom had been saved, by God’s grace, through his own words.  We both smiled as we left the hospital feeling that Jane’s prayers had finally been answered and heard my father’s voice in my head, “Indeed, be careful what you say, for those words may be what you need to see the love of God once again.”

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and will be teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan beginning in late summer.

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Year for Priests: Grateful for a special visitor

By Maryknoll Father Michael J. Snyder
One in a series

DAR ES SALAAM, Tananzia — Many people come to my office door here at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences.  The university shares its campus with the national hospital with 1,200 beds and over 1,000 day patients.  There is also a large slum called Jangwani situated not far from the hospital.  The news has spread that Fr. Michael will help people in need.  That’s nice, but it has resulted in a steady stream of people coming to the door.

Many of the cases are genuine, some are con artists, and others, while poor, pretty much will say anything it takes just to get some assistance.  For so many, giving them money is just not the answer to the problems facing them.  Poverty is such a horrible disease!  Sometimes I feel I need a social worker who can listen and direct people to places where they can find the proper assistance.  My own background as a social worker years ago comes in handy.

I think the news is spreading that Fr. Michael asks many questions and often does not give money, so the numbers at my door are reducing.  Nevertheless, yesterday a lady came to the office.  She was ill, stricken with AIDS.  Her children and husband have died.  She has been told to vacate the room her husband was renting.  She has no money and feels it is time to return to her parents’ home in Mwanza, which is situated on the other side of Tanzania.  Her name is Rehema, which translated to English means “compassion.”  I tried to console her and direct her to the local parish.  Already she receives medicine from the archdiocesan AIDS outreach program named PASADA.  She seemed lost, her spirit broken.

I decided to give her 35,000 shillings (US$30) for the bus trip to Mwanza. She thanked me and began to shed tears.  As she stood to leave she said she would board a bus that very day.  Rehema extended her hand to me and then went down on one knee thanking me so much for helping her.  I took her hand into both of mine and prayed for a safe journey.  As Rehema left the office, it occurred to me that this had been a precious moment.  I had just been in the presence of God.  Jesus had come to me as Rehema asking me to never harden my heart to those who come to my office in need.

Rehema felt blessed for my assistance, but in reality I was the one being assisted and indeed blessed!  Later that day, I was the one on bended knee, grateful for such a precious moment.

Fr. Michael J. Snyder is a member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, commonly known as Maryknoll. A native of New Jersey, he was ordained in 1979 and assigned to work in Tanzania, East Africa. In addition to various parish assignments, Fr. Mike served as the regional superior for the Maryknoll priests, brothers, and lay missioners working in Tanzania (1989-1995). In 1996 he returned to the U.S. to serve on the General Council for Maryknoll until 2002. Fr. Mike also served as vocation director for Maryknoll for seven years. In 2007 he returned for missionary service in Tanzania where he resides today.

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