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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Michael Jackson’s spirituality

Amid the whirlwind of talk and writings about the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, after his death last week, we stumbled upon a story he wrote for Beliefnet in 2000 chronicling his faith.

During his childhood in the spotlight, Jackson found solace in going to church on Sundays, he wrote. He was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, though there have been reports that he converted to Islam. He also spent the Sabbath handing out missionary materials at homes and malls.

As the musical and cultural sensation grew in popularity, the media made it difficult for him to attend church, but he continued going door-to-door for “years and years” in disguise.

“I was comforted by the belief that God exists in my heart and in music and in beauty, not only in a building,” he wrote.

But he still missed feeling like part of a community, “sharing a day with God.”

He goes on to write that he experienced God when his children were born.

“Children are God’s gift to us. No — they are more than that — they are the very form of God’s energy and creativity and love. He is to be found in their innocence, experienced in their playfulness.”

Much of Jackson’s life was riddled by publicity crises, sex abuse accusations, unverified gossip, theories on what went wrong. This raw account offers a glimpse into the effect a lifetime of celebrity can have on a psyche.

And whatever you choose to believe and remember about his private life, it seems his intentions were good and his outlook pure.

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.

Fairness Doctrine would threaten Christian stations, author says

Christian radio and television stations had better watch out — the government might get them. So says conservative author Brad O’Leary.

He spoke out at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday against the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct Federal Communications Commission rule that would require equal attention to both sides of controversial issues in broadcast editorial content.

Although there is no formal bill in Congress, O’Leary still wrote a book warning of the rule’s potential dangers.

“Talk radio is under attack,” said O’Leary, a Catholic. “Christian radio is under attack. And even the Internet is under attack.”

In his book, O’Leary wrote that the doctrine could require Christian stations to give equal time to  activists who support keeping abortion legal, same-sex marriage activists, environmental rights activists and people of other faiths opposite supporters of Christian theology and religious principles.

“The medium would die a quick death,” he wrote.

A gathering in Venice

Cardinal Angelo Scola (CNS photo/Todd Plitt)

Cardinal Angelo Scola (CNS photo/Todd Plitt)

VENICE, Italy — I was pleasantly surprised the other day to find that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice was following me on Twitter. I began using Twitter a year and a half ago, mainly to stay in touch with friends and family, so I’m hoping the cardinal won’t be disappointed to discover more about what I’m cooking for dinner than what’s happening at the Vatican. (I sent him the link to our more newsy CNS Twitter account,

My surprise was also at the fact that Cardinal Scola was Twittering at all. In many ways, he strikes me as one of the least likely Twitterers in the Catholic hierarchy. He has a speaking and writing style that seems more suited to scholarly treatises than Tweets. For him, 140 characters is barely a running start.

I profiled Cardinal Scola in 2005, and made several trips to Venice to see him in action. He combines a direct pastoral style with intellectual vigor, and that’s made him popular in his own patriarchate. At that time, he had just founded Oasis, a foundation and a magazine aimed at exploring religious and cultural issues — especially in places where Christians and Muslims interact.

Oasis hosted a two-day conference this week, and I made the trip to Venice after I saw the line-up of speakers and participants: some of the world’s top scholars on Islam and Christianity, along with several bishops who work on the front lines of Christian-Muslim relations.

The encounter focused on how “tradition” has emerged as a crucial concept in interreligious relations, in particular the balancing of the traditions of the religious majority and religious minorities. To understand the relevance of the topic, one only has to look at today’s newspaper and read about French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s rejection of the burka and the face veil as a sign of women’s subservience, and not a sign of religion.

Of course, these kinds of gatherings are great places to get soundings on other issues. I found participants in Venice fairly eager to talk about President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Cairo, which they viewed cautiously but positively.

They were less eager to talk about Iran. There was strong sentiment in support of those working for change in Iran, at least among the Catholic prelates I spoke with. But even those who have lived and worked in Iran were hesitant to make on-the-record statements, lest the church be seen as a political actor in the current crisis. One thing most agreed on was that the public opposition to the ruling clerics was unprecedented, and that this was a good thing.

An anniversary for a war-torn church

Priests and parishioners killed. A cathedral almost completely obliterated. The head of a wooden statue of  Mary badly burned, but miraculously intact.

It’s been 50 years since the reconstruction of the Urakami Catholic Cathedral, which the atomic bomb ravaged in 1945 in Nagasaki, Japan. Built by the French in 1914, it had been the largest Catholic church in Asia.

The superior of the Jesuits in Japan suggested the creation of a memorial church, and citizens competed in an architectural contest, according to Catholic News Service archives.

An unnamed American benefactor gave $50,000 to erect the church.

“Americans dropped the bomb,” the benefactor said, “so Americans should help build the memorial.”

Foreign nations raised about $60,000. Much of it came from Catholic War Veterans, based in Alexandria, Va. A spokesperson could not verify this and said many veterans from that time have passed away.

A group in Switzerland has been pushing to place the Mary statue on the World Heritage List since 2001. A displaced Japanese soldier and Catholic priest found the eyeless statue while praying in the ruins of the church, according to group’s Web site. He kept it in his monastery for 30 years until giving it to a professor, who kept it for 15 years. It then spent some time in an atomic bomb museum until the group’s leader helped it find its home in the rebuilt church.

More than 20,000 people have signed petitions to have the statue recognized.

A pamphlet in Catholic News Service's archives called "Memory of Urakami Church."

A pamphlet in Catholic News Service's archives called "Memory of Urakami Church."

Remembering ‘a man of peace’

The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has a touching story about Father Timothy Vakoc, who died on Saturday. He was reportedly the first Army chaplain to be gravely injured in the Iraq War.

His older brother told the Catholic newspaper that he hopes the 49-year-old will be remembered as a priest who gave his life serving Christians.

“He firmly believed in what he was doing as an active duty chaplain in the Army,” says Jeff Vakoc.