Year for Priests: Thoughts on vocations

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

As a young priest, I am often asked to speak on the topic of vocations to the priesthood.  As a result, I spend a fair amount of energy thinking and conversing about the issue, and was recently encouraged to put a few ideas in writing.  There are, of course, numerous thoughts, books, conferences and opinions concerning the cultivation of vocations. So, while I do not believe these ideas to be innovative, I do hope they serve as good reminders about the support each person makes to the “vineyard.”

Perceptions of holiness

Most people believe that the largest obstacle to the priesthood in the minds of young men is celibacy. However, I have not found this to be true.  As far as religious life is concerned, the vow of obedience is much more daunting to a very independent generation.  Yet, even more than any notions concerning the vows, are ideas that stem from ignorance about the personhood of a priest.  In a recent survey by my own community, we discovered that many young men in our schools have “seriously considered” the priesthood, but do not feel that they are “holy” enough.  We concluded that when priests served in greater numbers, young men had greater opportunities to know the man behind the collar – as a man who struggles with prayer and service as much as most people.  Thus, it seems one task of everyone who promotes vocations is to demystify the preconceived notions of priestly holiness, allowing for priests to be seen as men who are devoted to the spiritual life, but are quite far from holy.  Admittedly, many believe the recent scandals have over-humanized the priesthood, but I have not found this to be true.  Young men seem to know the exceptions when they see them and still place the office of the priesthood on an almost unreachable altar.

A choice among many

The second challenge I have found concerns the choices afforded to those who may consider the priesthood.  In my own community, many of the elder priests entered because that is what a friend was doing or because they did not see many other options available to them.  Many of these men confess that they stayed because they felt called, but their original reason was not as special as some may think.  This is a very different scenario for modern men who are often afforded more options than they know to handle.  Thus, the priesthood must be promoted as one of many choices.  While it is a call, it is often difficult to hear in the beginning.  If men are to hear God’s voice, then the priesthood must be promoted as the best choice over the others.  In the beginning, I believe this requires a pragmatic and inspirational line of reasoning to capture their mind in addition to their heart.

A family affair

While it is important to speak to young men (and women) about vocations, my parents often remind me that I am not the only one living my vocation.  As a religious-order priest, my parents have a whole new family of Basilians, whom are often quite close to them.  Of course, they did not expect this; in fact, they did not know what to expect.  While many people spoke to me about priesthood, no one talked to them.  My parents have since spoken to other parents about what it is like to have a son as a priest, and the response is quite positive.  Simply put, parents have as many concerns as those considering the priesthood, and while they want to support their son, they often do not know how.  My encouragement to pastors has been simple – bring young priests, and their parents, to the parish.  If we are to encourage the families to promote vocations, give the whole family a reason to talk about it.

In closing, I hope you share your thoughts on this topic – successes, concerns and hopes.

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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Who’s tweeting for the Vatican?

VATICAN CITY — Over the weekend some media announced that the Vatican had opened a Twitter feed. Intrigued, I quickly went to @vatican_va on Twitter. At first glance, it looked like the Vatican — there was the Vatican coat of arms, the Vatican flag and a link to the Vatican Web site. And hundreds of tweets in many languages, linking to Vatican Radio stories.

Then I e-mailed Father Federico Lombardi, who heads both the Vatican press office and Vatican Radio. I got a response rather quickly, and a surprising one. He said the Twitter feed was news to him, and that neither the press office nor Vatican Radio was doing the tweeting. A call to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications elicited a similar response: it wasn’t them, and they didn’t know who it was.

Hmmm. This was beginning to look more and more like online impersonation.  Perhaps not the first, either: I knew there was already a @vaticanen Twitter feed that also identified itself as “Vatican” without, as far as I knew, any authorization.

A few more calls around the Vatican this morning elicited more surprise and some concern. I have the impression that Vatican Radio may be seriously considering a Twitter feed, and doesn’t like being hijacked like this.

At this point, no one I’ve spoken with here has any idea who’s tweeting for the Vatican. More as it develops…

UPDATE: The Vatican_va tweeter appears to have been silenced. No tweets on since Monday afternoon. Yesterday someone at the Vatican told me this tweeter wouldn’t be posting for long … and he was right. The whole episode has prompted some Vatican media people to remark, “It wasn’t us — but it should have been us.” So don’t be surprised to see a real Vatican Twitter feed in the future.

Some may be aware of a similar Twitter account that calls itself  “popebenedictxvi“. It posted quite a few items last year about papal activities, gained more than 3,700 followers, and then fell quiet until recently. This tweeter, though, states clearly near the top of the page: “This is not an official Vatican service. I’m just a fan doing his part to spread the word.” And his latest tweet, sent Jan. 24 after the pope issued his World Communications Day message on new media, issues this invitation: “If anyone at the Vatican would like to claim this Twitter acct, pls Direct Message me.” That seems like an offer too good to refuse.

SECOND UPDATE: OK, @vatican_va is back tweeting like crazy again, though it looks like whatever automated system he/she is using to link to Vatican Radio stories is having some hiccups. I really wish there were a way to identify the people behind Twitter accounts.

Pope urges priests to join the digital revolution

An image of Pope Benedict on a Vatican Web site as displayed on an Apple iPod touch. (CNS photo/Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict’s message for World Communications Day 2010, unveiled at a Vatican press conference today, encourages priests around the world to take their pastoral ministry online through Web sites, blogs and videos.

The message says the church cannot afford to ignore the possibilities offered by the digital revolution. Our story today reviews the main themes of the pope’s text, and here are some excerpts:

Responding adequately to this challenge amid today’s cultural shifts, to which young people are especially sensitive, necessarily involves using new communications technologies. The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16)

In this Year for Priests, the pope focused on how the church’s ordained ministers can turn the Internet and new media into powerful instruments of evangelization.

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis. Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ.

Lest the church be seen as encouraging a new media “star system” among its clergy, the pope adds a word of caution.

Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a “soul” to the fabric of communications that makes up the “Web”.

The pope recognized that digital media will inevitably take priests beyond the church’s own boundaries, requiring a sensitive approach.

A pastoral presence in the world of digital communications, precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, non-believers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute.

The main goal of the church’s digital presence should be to remind modern men and women that God is near, he said.

Thanks to the new communications media, the Lord can walk the streets of our cities and, stopping before the threshold of our homes and our hearts, say once more: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).

Searching for answers in Haiti

The incredible devastation and destruction caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti has prompted many to wonder why a nation already so impoverished would experience such tragedy.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a former physicist and U.S.  director of the Catholic lay group Communion and Liberation, attempts to shed some light on understanding the tragedy in a Jan. 15 America magazine blog

The priest asks: “By what measure do we comprehend something like this? What could ever make it so understandable that we can eliminate from our hearts and minds the cry that surfaces again and again, the cry of why?”

He also notes that amid the tragedy “the church was not spared anything. The cathedral collapsed killing the archbishop, seminaries and convents were destroyed, killing future priests and dedicated religious sisters.”

Msgr. Albacete said he couldn’t offer “an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen” as any attempt at explaining would “reduce the pain and suffering.” Instead, he said he can only “accept a God who ‘co-suffers’ with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.”

Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, similarly told a Catholic news agency that “thousands of homilies will be given in the coming days to help us understand how a loving God could allow such suffering.”

Without mentioning the televangelist Pat Robertson by name, Anderson said “one of the more controversial explanations” of the destruction in Haiti “came from a Protestant evangelist who stated that Haiti had been ‘cursed’ ever since its founders had ‘sworn a pact with the devil’ to achieve the nation’s independence from France.”

Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, gave his explanation of his perceived root of Haiti’s troubles in a Jan. 13 segment on his network.

The Christian Broadcasting Network quickly backpedaled on the comments on their Web site where a spokesman said Robertson didn’t mean to imply the earthquake was the Haitians’ fault, and that he was merely repeating a legend that has led “countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.”

The legend, that Haiti was built on a pact with the devil has circulated on a number of Web sites tracing back to an tale of Haitian voodoo priests offering sacrifices prior to the slave revolt that led to the country’s founding.

A CNS story in 1991 recounts the 200th anniversary of this event and the controversy around it, noting that the streets were relatively quiet in the capital city Aug. 14 as Haitians prepared an evening of celebration of the Aug. 14, 1791, meeting by slaves to plot the overthrow of their French colonial masters.

Details of the anniversary of this event note that plans were “fraught with controversy between members of Protestant sects and those who follow a mix of Catholicism and traditional African religion, with the Catholic president in the middle.”

The CNS story continues: “The evil spirits invoked at Bois Caiman have brought a curse on this country,” according to a pastor during one of many anti-voodoo street marches. Bois Caiman is where African slaves met to plot the uprising 200 years ago. Tradition maintains that to ensure their success they held a voodoo ceremony that included a blood pact and the sacrifice of a pig.

 A week later, slaves rose up and in a single night burned sugar-cane fields, mills and plantation houses and killed thousands of Frenchmen.

The government planned to hold a secular commemoration — including drumming throughout the country at midnight — but even this drew Protestant criticism.

One Protestant group invited all Christians to pray at midnight “to free Haiti from the baleful influence of the voodoo spirits and reconsecrate it to Christ.”

Even though some type of voodoo meeting took place more than 200 years ago at the start of Haiti’s founding, other Christian leaders are hardly pointing to it as the cause for the current devastation.

Anderson pointed out that there is “ample evidence in the Old Testament of nations being punished by God for idolatry and injustice and some Christians continue to look to this Old Testament history for explanations of world events.”

“But Catholics today are more likely to look in a different direction to understand how God deals with human sinfulness. And they need look no further than at the crucifix above the altar in their church. God has freely and lovingly united himself with human suffering in the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross,” he said.

He also added that the tragedy in Haiti is “likely to have long-lasting effects, not only for the people who have lost loved ones there, but for an entire generation that has witnessed its destruction. And it is important that we get the right understanding of what has occurred there.”

Mysterious Rembrandt etching found

Image courtesy of CUA

The fact that The Catholic University of America in Washington has opened a free art exhibit in a gallery in its campus library may not sound unusual. On display through May 24 are items from the university’s own collection: drawings, etchings, engravings and woodcut prints created by American and European artists.

None of them has been displayed before, but the newsworthy thing about the exhibit is one etching in particular:  an image of a tired old man “with a great beard seen about most of the face.” “His head a little perched gives him … the attitude of a  man who sleeps,” continues a description on the back of the work, translated from French by doctoral student Paul Wesley Bush.

About a year ago those in the know confirmed it’s an authentic Rembrandt — but the university didn’t know what it had at first. It was just lying around under some junk on a bottom shelf in a restroom in Nugent Hall, according to the university’s PR people .

A press release said that Vincentian Father David M. O’Connell, the university’s president, discovered it quite by accident in Nugent Hall, where his office is. He opened a cabinet in the restroom to find some paper towels and noticed on the bottom shelf something in a frame — “an etching that looked familiar to me.  Why it was there or how it got there, I’ll never know .”

The priest showed the etching to Leslie  Knoblauch, a university archvist, who contacted an appraiser. The appraiser confirmed it was a genuine Rembrandt. With Knoblauch, Bush put together the current exhibit: “Fine Lines: Discovering Rembrandt and Other Old Masters at Catholic University.”

Whispers of another Synod for America

Archbishop Nikola Eterovic speaks at a Jan. 19 Vatican press conference. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — During a Vatican press conference yesterday presenting the outline of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic told reporters there was talk of having another special assembly for America.

The last synod for America was held in 1997. It included bishops, priests, religious and lay representatives from the northern reaches of North America all the way down to the southern tip of South America.

The decision to hold a special assembly, he said, “depends on the pastoral situation (of the region) and also on the bishops requesting it.”

There has been “talk of a special assembly for America. However, it is an idea that needs fleshing out,” he added.

He said if the bishops and Pope Benedict XVI decide it would be useful for the local churches and for the continent to organize a regional synod, then the Synod of Bishops, which is “at the service of the bishops,” will follow up on it.

One source told me that Latin American bishops have been talking about the need for a special assembly so that they can get input and assistance from Northern America and the Vatican.

There are two issues of special concern: better communication and increasingly authoritarian governments taking hold in Latin America.

With communication, it seems the bishops would like help in finding ways to get information to flow more easily and quickly among the churches — some kind of set up (as the phrase goes) so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

Concerning the political situation in Latin America, it appears that some church leaders want to make sure their role in public debate is not misconstrued as being an advocate for a particular political party, but  as a supporter of specific principles and democratic ideals.

Catholic Charities honors three ‘champions of the poor’

Three individuals described as “national champions of the poor” were given a Keep the Dream Alive Award by Catholic Charities USA Jan. 18, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The honors were given by the Alexandria, Va.-based agency as part of its centennial observance, which continues through September.

Those honored were:

— Allison Boisvert, social justice minister for the Pax Christi Catholic Community, Eden Prairie, Minn.

— Arturo Chavez, president and CEO, Mexican American Catholic College, San Antonio.

— Ralph McCloud, director, Catholic Campaign for Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The awards were presented de during a Mass at St. Aloysius Church in Washington. Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley of Washington was the celebrant.