By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series
One of my favorite “one-liners” comes from Precious Blood Father Anthony Gittons, who wrote, “We cannot transform ourselves, but we can create the space for transformation to occur.” Over the years, I have applied this to my life on an almost daily basis, but recently I have begun to understand it in the context of those to whom I minister — or my “audience.”
One of the very quick lessons I have learned is that, as a priest, I am no longer on “the front lines.” As I walk around campus and around town, I am very aware that I am set apart, not because of my own actions or preference, but because that is what people need (despite the objection of some, by far I have found the majority of people want their priest to be different — to represent an alternative way of life). The collar I now wear around my neck is a sign and at times a barrier that does not allow me to be as close to people as was once possible. However, I do not see this as a negative; rather, it has caused me to shift the audience of my ministry.
If the ministry of the priest is modeled on Christ, then it seems my primary ministry is to those ministers who are close to me, for it is they who will go out to live and work on the front lines long after I have moved on. Though I continue to speak to the “masses” on certain occasions, I have realized — at least for the moment — that my job is to be a minister to the ministers. After all, this seems to speak to the spirit of Vatican II that emphasizes the role of the laity as those who bring the Gospel into the world around us (see Gaudium et Spes or Apostolicam Actuositatem).
At its very core, I am discovering that ministry is relational and reciprocal. The ministers with whom I work every day know me as Chris, with all of my gifts, weaknesses and quirks. They are close enough to see the finesse and the nuance — things many people in the Sunday congregation do not want and are not ready to learn. Likewise, my priesthood is shaped by them. So much of what I do in ministry seems to concern creating safe environments for people to encounter each other and touch the Divine. In the context of ministry, I think this is what Father Gittons meant: “to create the space for transformation to occur.”
I should add, by the way, that these are working thoughts. Should you have any thoughts on who the audience of a priest is, I would love to hear 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.