Year for Priests: A faith seen round the world

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

priestsRecently, a parishioner offered her gratitude for my work in her parish because, as she said, “It is the first time I ever felt like I belonged to something big enough to hold my faith.”  As we spoke, she went on to say that she has always felt a disconnect with the rest of the church.  Though she understands the theology and tradition of the Mass and our prayers that unite us together, she has longed for hear about the “big picture” — how the Gospel affects other parts of the world, what teachings are in progress, and the stories of faith beyond her own experience.

Though some people find this appeal of the universal church unsettling, it made perfect sense to me.  Other forms of information and sociology have embraced our universal and global connectedness through various forms of technology and media.  Why should people expect any different from their priests and parishes?

Almost one year ago, I was asked to help coordinate the Vocation Expo at World Youth Day in Sydney.  One of the many features of that exhibit that struck me was the attraction of young people to religious orders and movements that spoke of their relationship with the “universal church.”  After a while, I began to understand why this connection was so important.  Quite simply, the church offers stability and longevity.  Amidst so much change and diversity, the church has room for everything — it is the center of every polarity.  Furthermore, when our particular charisms are placed in line with the streams of the church, their effects are amplified.  We not only launch our ideas with momentum, but they progress with greater traction.  In the church, we have a container big enough for our imaginations.

In the Scriptures, Christ breaks through the old notions that God resides only in the temple in order for God to be greater than their experience of temple worship.  The same is true with Catholics today who need to know that God’s presence is more comprehensive than what is found in Sunday Mass.

So the challenge for all of us, all ministers and priests, is quite simple (if I may be so bold) — reference the instances of faith seen and heard around the world.  Read the weekly statements from Rome and the U.S. bishops and pass them on to others.  True, not all are appropriate, but I have been surprised at the excitement and willingness of so many to discuss the issues and learn from 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: Serving African medical students a privilege

By Maryknoll Father Michael J. Snyder
One in a series

DAR ES SALAAM, Tananzia — It has been two and a half years since my return to Tanzania after 10 years of service in the U.S.  I had 20 years previous experience in this country.  This present assignment has brought me to Dar es Salaam and a new experience as chaplain at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, the national medical university of Tanzania.

This medical school at Muhimbili Hospital was once the only one in Tanzania.  Formerly the School of Medicine of the University of Dar es Salaam, it had a student population of just 400 in the 1970s.  Today with a student body of 1,600 it stands alone.  Nearly 50 percent of the students are Catholic, a tribute to an historical emphasis placed on education by the Catholic Church.

Serving among them has been a privilege.  For some 60 students the day begins with Mass at 6:30 a.m. at our chapel.  Classes begin at 8:30 and continue right up to 5:00 p.m. with an hour and a half break for lunch.

I had heard that this is the cream of intelligentsia for the country and have come to learn how true it is.  The Catholic community at Muhimbili engages 40 students in different facets of leadership.  They take responsibility for accounts, banking, distribution of salaries, and organization of events and activities.  They are intelligent and mature yet maintain the spark and enthusiasm of youth.  If they are able to cope with the temptations that lead to corrupt practices and the lure to abandon Tanzania for lucrative jobs outside the country, these young people can make a tremendous contribution in the medical sector.

Maintaining the ideals and positive motivation of service is a major challenge facing them.  Perhaps the singular most interesting challenge for me as their chaplain can be described with a question:  How can the message of Christ alive within us nurture and prepare medical students for the sacrifices needed so that God’s hand may touch the thousands who seek them out for healing in a country where poverty prevails?

For the most part, the students are committed and want to help.  But they also have a right to a decent living.  They are smart and can see what is happening around them.  They have questions and they wonder how they will reconcile their faith with the desire for a decent living.  Salaries are low and resources scarce.  So, medical professionals are tempted to inflate their salaries by hoarding available services and charging patients extra for them.

Medical ethics is a major question.  In the classroom they are taught how to scientifically deal with illness.  They are given procedures that sometimes conflict with church teaching and wonder how they will be able to function as faithful Catholics in a medical system that promotes policies that are contrary to the church’s position.

I hope this gives you a little feel for what medical university campus ministry is all about in Tanzania.  Let me end with some comments from the students themselves when asked what the Catholic community at Muhimbili means to them:

* * *

I’m participating in the activities of my church because first I believe it is my responsibility to make my church active, and as I receive blessings from God everyday I also need to do something in return.  In addition to that, it gives me a sense of really belonging to the community.  I am happy to work with other members, as in doing so, I learn a lot about understanding myself and others and obtain skills on how to work well as a group anywhere in serving God.

– Cecelia Ngatunga (third-year medical student)

Praise the Lord!  The Muhimbili Catholic Community has enabled me to understand the meaning of love and humility in action, especially on Saturday evenings when we visit patients of different religions in the wards seeking to comfort them.  At our chapel people of different ages and medical professions are united together as the Muhimbili Catholic Community!

– George Alcard Rweyemamu (third-year medical student)

The advantage I see for being a member of the Muhimbili Catholic Community are the spiritual services offered, such as daily Mass.  I also value the church activities, especially the seminars and volunteer opportunities such as visiting the sick.  Finally, I enjoy socializing with different people that build me spiritually.

– Valeria Rugaiganisa (third-year nursing student)

* * *

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.

Year for Priests: How not to feel overwhelmed

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Some of the more humorous conversations I have had with other priests concern the things we wished they would have taught us in seminary, but never did.

Most of us spend at least five years in seminary contemplating the mysteries of the faith and learning how to celebrate the various sacraments, but we are never exposed to construction and re-construction terminology, finance and investments, volunteer management, or the basics of communication and technology (to name just a few).  While I have also struggled with these issues, one of the greatest challenges I have found as a new priest concerns the politics that accompanies the organizational and administrative qualities of ministry.  As I have discussed these issues with others, I have found that the politics and more “human” elements of priesthood are difficult for many new priests to accept.

To be sure, all priests hold one piece of advice in common  — at some point near ordination, we have all been assured that we are ready, despite the overwhelming feeling that we are not.  “Who am I to (fill in the blank)” is a phrase that goes through the head of every priest with whom I have spoke as they contemplate what lies in front of them.

To this question, the answer is simple — the priest is who he is because of God and what God will do through him.  The practical challenge this recognition presents often lies in the finer points of ministry and control.  I have found that “allowing God to work through” versus “God being present in” is a subtle, but significant difference that I am not sure I will ever master.

One of my favorite paragraphs of Scripture comes from the First Letter of Peter where it suggests that we always be ready to give witness to our hope (1 Pt 3:13-17).  In fact, this entire book offers Christians practical wisdom and focus as to how we might overcome the sufferings and smallness of spirit in our lives.  And it is in these thoughts, where I find comfort — my role is to speak about the goodness of God.  Though I may be overwhelmed by the tasks in front of me and tempted by the gossip and negativity that surrounds me, the discipline I must practice focuses on the hope and happiness I find in ministry.

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 to serve, despite challenges

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

On June 29, I posted my first blog regarding the Year for Priests.  I confess to having been a bit surprised at the reaction, termed by one observer a “minor firestorm.”

In that entry, I described a “typical” day in the life of a parish priest, which often becomes a whirlwind of meetings, appointments, phone calls, crisis management, etc., in addition to celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments and praying the Liturgy of the Hours.  I made a plea for carving out a 10-minute “sacred space,” preferably at the beginning of the day, for quiet conversation with the Lord.

Several of the respondents considered this a “minimalist” approach and noted that the priest must be, beyond all else, a “man of prayer.”  I did anticipate those comments and, believe me, a more extended period of quiet would be a real bonus; but the reality is that much of a priest’s day is spontaneous and dictated by events beyond his control.

What surprised me, though, was the reaction from a woman who called my “typical” day “bleak and soul-deadening” and worried that her son would find no joy that might attract him to a similar calling.  (I did mention the need for “play” and that I was looking forward to attending a Red Sox game with a couple of old friends, but maybe this reader was a Yankee fan!)

I just don’t believe that “busy” equates with “bleak” because the very reason I became a priest was to be busy with the Lord’s work.  And it’s no coincidence that study after study describes priests as among the happiest and most content of all American males.  (This result is consistent in every survey I’ve read about over the last two decades, including those done since the avalanche of publicity on the tragedy of clergy sex abuse.  Evidently most priests are embarrassed and angry about those crimes but feel that parishioners are savvy enough to assign them to the vast minority of priests.)

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that if  Christians really believed what they say, they would smile more than they do.  I guess that I probably smile a lot, because I believe in what I do and I like doing it.  (I’m reminded of Stan Musial, who said that he felt guilty being paid for playing baseball, something he enjoyed doing so much.)

I once read that the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is this: an optimist wakes up and says ‘Good morning, Lord” while a pessimist, upon waking, says “Good Lord, morning!”  I wake up each day grateful for the chance to serve God’s people as a priest.

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: Different roles, common mission

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

As a young religious priest, I am often the anomaly living in houses with men who are as old or older than my own grandparents. In recent weeks I have had a number of conversations about the differences between my own ministry as a priest and the ministry my confreres knew when they were young priests. Since most people are familiar with the “traditional” ministries of priests as teachers, pastors and administrators of various sorts, I thought I would take the opportunity to share a bit of my own experience of the priesthood and religious life.

When I first met the Congregation of St. Basil, I arrived with a U-Haul full of possessions. Now I can barely fill the trunk of a car. My life has been a steady progression towards simplicity and re-defining what it means to be “self-sufficient.” No doubt, this is the natural consequence of moving to a new part of the world almost every year.

I have never known what it was like to live in religious house with dozens of my peers. Seminarians were the minority in my theology classes — most were lay ministers and women. As a result my approach to ministry reflects the need for dialogue and collaboration all the while respecting the authority of the church. I am well-trained in media and interreligious issues and have completed more psychosexual education than most of my confreres have had during their entire life.

I would estimate that 30 percent of my ministry occurs entirely online. I maintain a number of Web sites, write frequently, host and/or am interviewed for various radio, TV, and Web programs, and email often. It is quite possible that I minister to more people than I will ever see or meet. I have found the greatest asset to my ministry is availability. I am on Facebook, carry a smart phone, text as much as I talk, listen to podcasts and read just about everything in digital format. Though I have students frequently in my office (usually without any warning or appointment), they are more likely to reach me virtually than face-to-face (their preference, not mine).

As an extrovert, I am around people almost all the time, but after years of living in religious life, I have come to appreciate quiet time. The first cup of coffee (that I affectionately call Jesus-and-Joe Time) is sacred. As a distance runner and tri-athlete, I do some of my best thinking around between miles 5 and 10 and in the water.

Whether I am in a classroom, parish, coffee shop, pub, gym or running down a street in the early hours of the morning with friends, I consider myself a teacher and a witness of the Gospel. Though the particulars of my priesthood are very different from the priesthood of my confreres, we are bonded by our mission. As I listen to their stories, I am amazed at how hard they worked, which was magnified by their numbers. I must admit that I am intimidated when I think about the road ahead — one with more work and fewer priests, but I also take great comfort in the amazing lay ministers with whom I work. So while we pray for more priests, may we not forget to pray for more men and women to serve their church as professional ministers. In the end, I believe this is one of the most exciting moments in our history to be a Catholic priest and that my ministry is as limitless as my imagination.

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: A modest suggestion for the priesthood

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

On June 19, at a vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI formally opened what he has proclaimed as the Year for Priests.

The purpose of the year, the pope has noted, is to encourage among priests a deeper prayer life and a renewed effort toward the “spiritual perfection” on which, says the pope, “the effectiveness of their ministry primarily depends.”

Let me say something about how the priesthood rolls out on the ground level and then make a modest suggestion.

The pope has timed the year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. But the life of the Curé of Ars, who spent several hours each day in the confessional in a rural town in France, bears little resemblance to the (mythical) “average day” of the priest in America right now.

Yesterday (as I write) was a Thursday, which is theoretically my “day off.” (A wonderful hospital chaplain generously takes the parish Mass on Thursday morning, so that the pastor can “get away,” which lately rarely happens.) This, in fact, was how yesterday went. It started at 8 a.m. at a board meeting of our local Catholic hospital, where the discussion is always spirited (and often lengthy). The hospital is building a quarter-billon-dollar addition, so there are financial issues surrounding that. It is also in the process of merging with a secular hospital, so there are ethical dimensions to address.

Finishing the meeting at 10, I drove to our parish office to draft a report on parish consolidation. The five Catholic parishes in our area this year are merging into three because of population shifts and the scarcity of priests. Lots of questions are on the table — new staffing patterns, revised Mass schedules, shared religious ed. programs, sale of vacated properties — and we have the next few months to figure it all out.

As I was writing that report, I was at the same time fielding phone calls: final arrangements for weddings (11 of them over the next few weeks) and baptisms (four this weekend); the ever-present calls from people with certain needs (the lonely woman who calls frequently simply to ask if it’s “all right if I call you tomorrow”; the man beset by scruples who calls most days, and many nights, to ask if I will “place your hands on my head, put the scapular around my neck and sprinkle me with holy water”). The challenge is to remember that “God is in the interruptions” and that a priest, like Christ, must always be kind.

Then it was off to the hospital and a local nursing home to visit parishioners, back to the parish for a wedding rehearsal, a 20-minute respite to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a supper-sandwich wolfed down at a local deli before repairing to the rectory desk to write a funeral homily. Soon it was 10 p.m. and time to fall asleep while watching the television news.

I’m not saying that the life of the priest is all work and no play; if you let it be that, you’ll soon be in trouble. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m going to Baltimore with two high school classmates who are also fellow inveterate Red Sox fans to see Boston play two games against the Orioles. (Tickets at Fenway Park are nearly impossible, but at Camden Yards you can walk in off the street.)

What I am saying is that a monastic spirituality, with a large dose of quiet built in, just doesn’t work for today’s parish priest. Instead, how about this as a practical alternative: 10 minutes a day, early in the morning before the craziness begins, 10 minutes to talk things over with God, to measure progress on our journey to heaven. Let’s do it just for a year — the Year for Priests. It could even become a habit.

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: Called to be a witness of hope

Editor’s Note: Today we introduce a new feature, a blog series on the Year for Priests from the perspective of priests themselves. We have several priests who have agreed to write for us about their lives and ministry. Watch for their posts in the coming weeks and months.

By Basilian Father Chris Valka

Pope Paul VI said, “We learn more from witnesses than we do from teachers.” I have reflected on this statement from time to time and it has recently re-entered my consciousness as the “Year for Priests” begins. In many ways, this statement captures my own journey to the priesthood, one that I would like to share in this first of many installments on the CNS Blog.

Originally from Houston, Texas, I grew up a cradle Catholic and am still blessed with a close family that has remained together through the ups and downs. I was the typical rebellious teenager, but always maintained a sense of responsibility — probably because I was too afraid of my father’s dissatisfaction . . . or guilt trip, depending on the episode. In 1993, I attended World Youth Day in Denver and saw the Catholic Church for the first time. That is to say, I saw the “big picture” — a church that was much more than my experience of Sunday Mass. World Youth Day was (and is) big enough for even my imagination, and so the seed of priesthood was planted. I entered the diocesan seminary very young, only to leave a year and a half later. After a few false starts, I finished college and began working in “the real world.” Success came quickly, but my soul paid the price. I spent many years away from God and anything associated with religion.

Failure would later follow, and, for a while, life was very, very hard. I was forced to dig deep within myself in order to move forward and it was then that I found God — waiting. The relationship with God I once cherished had suffered terribly because of my own actions and it would take almost two years to repair it. Of course, God was willing to take me back immediately, but I needed a lot more time to realize who I was and what my life was to be about.

After many more false starts, I found myself teaching at a very impoverished, inner-city high school in Houston. During this time, I also met the Basilian Fathers. After my life had been stripped completely, its renovation occurred through my relationship with the Basilians and the lessons I learned from my students. Among many things, I realized that what my students really needed was someone to show them — not just tell them — that there is a different way to live. More than education or social services, what my students needed was a witness of hope.

As I reflected on my own life, I realized that the best vehicle of true hope that I had ever known was communicated through the ministry of the church. Though it has its flaws, I could not deny that the Catholic Church is still the most effective means by which God’s enduring grace, wisdom and hope is communicated to the world. So, in a dirty Houston high school classroom I heard God’s call for me to be a witness of hope through the voices of my students.

During the course of this next year, I hope to share the experience of formation and first year of priesthood. In the meantime, I ask that you continue to pray for those who feel they have lost their way, because it if often during those moments that we are most open to the way that leads us to God. May we all be witnesses of that hope.

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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