Year for Priests: Transcending the classroom

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

A new year brings a new semester at Catholic Central High School, and while no one is entirely thrilled about the daily addition of snow that plagues the roadways, winter seems to promote a little more stillness, reflection and purity in the mind of my students.  In American Literature, we began a new unit on Transcendentalism – perfect for this time of year.  After a brief introduction, we imagined that our classroom was in Cambridge, Mass.,s circa 1836.  As we sat casually inside, the snow continued to fall outside as we philosophized about life.  They asked:

“What does the afterlife look like?”

“What brings about happiness?”

“What is the relevance of God?”

Happiness, they first determined, is success, which is measured in cash; but then we discussed it further and they concluded that happiness comes from experience.  Most students agreed that happiness comes about through the activities of men and women. Thus, I asked about the relevance of God?

. . . . . silence.

In the middle of so many activities that occur in the world of a teenage boy, I asked, “Where does God enter the picture?”  They agreed that they wanted an answer, but found it difficult to articulate.  “So,” I said, “Let’s simplify it then: Why go to church?”

“For hope,” one young man said.

“So I can learn how it is I am supposed to live,” said another.

And another said, “It is the only place I can find quiet.”

Struck by their sincerity, I asked if they find what they desire in church.  “Sometimes,” they continued, “but often what we learn about in church doesn’t really affect us too much.  Like at Mass, I used to think that the priest was just simply talking to the adults, but then my mom couldn’t remember what the priest said either.  I guess it didn’t matter much.”

“So why go?” I asked.

“Because I hope one day I’ll get it,” he said.

After class, I recalled a production that I did some time ago with Salt + Light Television entitled The Search for Church (the 20-minute video is linked here).  That night, I watched it once again and found that my students reiterated what we discovered through that production – young people really want meaning in their lives, but even at church the message is often clouded.  Yet, young people continue to come and remind the rest of us that our places of worship should ultimately be places of living hope.

My students are learning from the Transcendentalists that there is a time and a place for non-conformity.  For my part, I pray that when the students find what they are looking for in church, it will be because the rest of us have learned from them as much as they have learned from us.

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

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