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.