Year for Priests: Ministry without politics

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

When I was first approached by Catholic News Service to contribute to this blog, I asked a lot of questions about their hopes for this initiative.  Among several ideas that I remember, I was told that is good to present what makes priesthood so amazing (as I understand it) and what makes it so challenging.  So after many entries of the amazing, I figured it is time to share one of my difficulties.

Good priests are also good politicians . . . and I wish it wasn’t the case.

I began to learn this lesson early in formation as I was frequently courted by priests who represent particular ministries and spiritualities.  Whether they were connected to the high schools, parishes, universities, social outreach organizations, liberal or more conservative theologies, the discussions and incentives were and are frequent and often aggressive.  In the seminary, you are under everyone’s microscope as they hope to find evidence of what you believe and in which direction you might lean.

What I did not understand is how much I was protected from these advancements when I was in formation.  Now that I am ordained, the protection is all but gone and I find myself at the mercy of those who try to influence my ministry through both blatant and covert actions.  In my prayers, I frequently reflect on the wisdom of Jesus to spend those first years of ministry away from the powers that could distract him from his purpose.  In my prayers, I long to spend all of my energy thinking about and being present to the people I wish to serve rather than drafting letters of concern and defense.  And in the quiet moments in my car, I am all too aware of the number of young priests who have left the priesthood shortly after ordination because they were unprepared for the challenges of a political priesthood (and for other reasons).

Though I was never naïve enough to believe an organization the size of the Catholic Church would be absent of political agendas, I never believed they would demand so much of my energy. At the same time, I recognize the challenges of religious and diocesan leadership as they struggle to maintain harmony between the energy of the young and the loyalty of the aged.  In the end, the challenges of the priesthood often translate into choices between tradition and innovation.  In what I truly believe is a new “springtime” of the church, I am all too aware of the painful pruning process that is required for new growth to bear fruit, and for that reason, am in awe of the task that lies before the church leaders of today.

Despite these struggles, I also believe that the church is still the best means by which God’s grace is transmitted to the world; thus, I remain firmly in love with her — for all her gifts and her faults.  Nevertheless, I think the Scriptures frequently remind us that we are much better off when we focus on the big picture.  Disharmony, impatience, frustration, maneuvering and infighting all occur when we are overly focused on how things are done, but it seems to me that Jesus was always more concerned on what and why things are done.

One of those who guided me in formation said that we should always judge by the fruits of one’s work, relationships and ideas; and while I believe he is correct, I pray for a day when this sort of judgment is not necessary at all.  May I (and all of us) have the wisdom to understand the balance.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Four arrested in protests at Army school

It’s been 19 years since the first call came from a fledgling campaign to close a training school for Latin American soldiers at the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Benning complex in Columbus, Ga.

The campaign, organized by School of the Americas Watch, continued Nov. 20-22 with an annual vigil at the base’s gates and the arrest of four people who entered Fort Benning property in an act of civil disobedience.

The annual event commemorates the Nov. 16, 1989, killing of six Jesuit priests at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador. Their housekeeper and her daughter also were murdered. SOA Watch has said more than a dozen Salvadoran soldiers involved in the murders were graduates of the school.

Those gathered for the vigil and march want the Army school — formerly the School of the Americas and since reorganized as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — closed. The school’s critics say the school’s graduates use what they’ve learned to violate human rights.

The Army has consistently disputed that claim, calling it “a ludicrous accusation” and challenging the school’s critics to show a direct link between actions of former students and the courses taught, which cover due process, the rule of law, human rights and the role of military in society, among other areas.

Elsie Jackson, public affairs specialist at Fort Benning, said this year’s demonstration seemed more subdued than previous years, but said the cool weather may have thinned the crowd.

“The protest was very peaceful, as they usually are,” she said. “My compliments to the organizers.” She otherwise declined to comment on the event.

The four who were arrested are no strangers to the art of public protest. Nancy Gwin, 63, of Syracuse, N.Y.; Ken Hayes, 60, of Austin, Texas; Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, 77, of Oakland, Calif.; and Michael Walli, 61, of Washington, all entered not guilty pleas in court Nov. 23. Their trials are set for late January.

Columbus police estimated this year’s crowd at about 4,800. SOA Watch spokesman Hendrik Voss disputed the number, placing the gathering at between 10,000 and 15,000 people.