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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4 Responses to Year for Priests: Ministry without politics

  1. Eric Sims says:

    I woudl be remiss if I didnt put a note in advocating the military chaplaincy.

    Dioceses always have shortages of priests, but the military is critically short of ordained priests to administer to the men and women that are directly in harms way. Its not as simple as a vocation, but a vocation with a calling to serve the nation as well.

    Politics take many forms in life today, patriotism and a spirit of service arent nesessarily political its a life style.

  2. Friar Rick says:

    If people can put you in a “box” they think they know how they can deal with you, how to control you or whether you are a threat to them. Remember that most of the time, these priests (and priests are people too!) have had negative experiences that lead them to this kind of a political approach.
    As a younger priest one aspect of your call may be to truly be yourself… both conservative AND liberal depending on the situation, parochial AND social justice oriented. I really believe in today’s church the priest needs to be about “And” not so much “Or”. Perhaps God may grace you with the gift of being a source of healing and reconciliation for your brothers.

  3. Ian says:

    A lesson I quickly learned in on ordination is that our Lord could have said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…politics will be there.” We see as much in ACTS, I think, with the Greek widows and the Hebrew Widows and the daily distribution. The comment by Friar Rick reminds me of words from my own Rector who often said that we get in trouble when we become people of “either or “rather than “both…and…” Christ was and is both human and divine. Yet we keep trying to put things into either or. I remind myself that we are both fallen and redeemed. (myself very much included)

  4. P. Tiemens says:

    Politics exists in all organisations and companies and always will. Politicians have always said that the biggest threat to an individual lies within their own party. If we think of the twelve chosen ones the theory is certainly well supported – so don’t despair. Perhaps we ‘All’ need to step back when we feel strongly about something and try to accept that we too mightn’t have it completely right and keep our minds open. “Success is not one of the names of God.” (Old proverb) quoted by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. There is nothing worse or more unlikely to succeed than a meeting run by aggressive lobbyists or when the outcome has already been decided. Big decisions have to be made but a good leader calls a meeting and asks for and listens to all available advice before making them and constantly reviews the results. Does anyone know who the patron saint of decision making is? – I think I know the answer to that one.

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