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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Pope’s piano tuned, even if he can’t play for now


Pope Benedict and his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, after a concert in the Sistine Chapel last January. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — The director of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo told the Vatican newspaper that preparations are almost complete for the pope’s expected arrival tomorrow evening: bushes have been re-potted, trees have been trimmed, flowers have been planted, walls have been painted and — he said — a piano tuner has come and gone.

Severio Petrillo, director of the villa — which includes the papal residence as well as gardens and a working farm — said he knows the pope has to wear a cast for another 20 days or so. But the pope’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, is arriving, too, and he’s a musician. For years, he was the director of the famous Regensburg Boys’ Choir. And, besides, Petrillo said, piano playing could be part of the physical therapy the pope will do once the cast is off.

Petrillo also said that at Castel Gandolfo Saturday the pope would meet swimmers, divers, water polo players and other athletes participating in the July 17-Aug. 2 FINA World Championship in Rome. The pope’s weekly general audience Aug. 5 also will be held at the papal villa, rather than at the Vatican, he said.

Father Desbois featured in National Geographic special on Nazi Europe

The crime was horrific: Go into a town, round up Jewish families, take them to a ditch and shoot them.

The National Geographic Channel on cable will air “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust” Aug. 2 at 10 p.m EDT/PDT and take viewers on a journey back to Nazi Europe to tell the story of the killing frenzy of Adolph Hitler’s extermination brigades, known as the “Einsatzgruppen,” or action groups.

National Geographic will follow the quest of Father Patrick Desbois to document the crimes through eyewitness accounts and find the multiple killing sites known to exist but hidden throughout Ukraine.

French priest Father Patrick Desbois (CNS/Bob Roller)

French priest Father Patrick Desbois (CNS/Bob Roller)

Since 2001, through interviews with elderly men and women in remote villages in the Ukrainian countryside, Father Desbois and his team of experts have found 800 of an estimated 2,000 Nazi mass execution sites.

Catholic News Service was present during his presentation last year at the U.S. Holocaust Museum here in Washington and at his 2007 pilgrimage in Israel and has captured his descriptions of witnesses’ firsthand accounts of soldiers murdering Jews in Ukraine and memories of being forced to dig a hole where their fellow villagers would be buried, sometimes alive.

Descriptions of these horrid crimes are recounted to Father Desbois as he tries to piece together what he calls in French “the Holocaust of bullets,” in which about 1.5 million Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Ukrainian forests and ravines.

Father Desbois is secretary of the French bishops’ office for relations with Judaism and adviser to the Vatican on Judaism. His interest in the Holocaust was spurred by his grandfather’s stories about his imprisonment as a French prisoner of war during World War II in Ukraine’s Rava-Ruska Nazi prison camp.

One elderly Ukrainian woman told the priest that as a young girl, she saw the Nazis order Soviet prisoners to burn the corpses of Jews. When they were finished, the prisoners were locked in a former chicken house and burned alive. Another woman told him Nazis used village children to walk on the bodies of the Jews who were shot in order to pack them down to make room for the next group of Jews. The woman remembered stepping on the body of a former classmate.

Father Desbois wrote a first-person account last year narrating his interest in the event and his methodical approach to uncovering the mystery of where the murdered bodies are buried.

“The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews” is a tale of the massacre of Jews in Ukraine but also gives a glimpse into the redemption received by eyewitnesses who had kept their 60-year-old memories to themselves until they told them to Father Desbois.

The National Geographic’s one-hour special will present in chilling detail how Nazi soldiers planned, documented and committed these crimes.