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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