By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series
Five days a week, I stand before six classes of teenage boys in 45-minute intervals. After attendance and the usual exchange of assignments and questions and answers, I have 40 minutes to convey a lesson, allow for in-class practice or discussion, assign the evening’s work, and then rush out the door to do it all over again in another classroom.
It is the life of any teacher at Catholic Central High School, where I teach literature, computers and public speaking, but my difficulty concerns the priestly role I have to the students and staff. I often ask myself, “When do I get to be a priest and not just a teacher? When do I get to talk about the God who has called me forth, given me purpose, joy, and more than I could have ever known on my own?”
Certainly, this question is not unique to myself or to my role as a teacher. My friends who work in parishes ask the same question, only exchanging “teacher” with “administrator.” They are equally challenged by the time constraints of their members, who often have no more than 15 seconds of available time after Sunday Mass.
It is because of these obstacles that I found the pope’s recent challenge to priests all too appropriate. In case you missed it, the Holy Father released his message for the 44th World Communications Day in which he challenged priests to utilize “new media” in order to “discover new possibilities for carrying out their ministry to and for the Word of God.”
These days, just about everyone I know has an iPod, especially if they are a high school or college student. I have found podcasts (a downloadable talk-radio-style interview) to be a potent “response” to the pope’s challenge.
A case in point:
Several months ago, the parents of one of my students, who I will call Sam, found me after Sunday Mass. During that 30-second exchange, they conveyed their concerns about their son’s lack of faith. Since then, Sam and I have had a few conversations about it, but there was never enough time to really discuss his objections and questions.
Two weeks ago, I heard a podcast that I thought Sam might appreciate. As he passed me after class, I pulled him aside and gave him the name and location of the interview on a piece of paper. Sam agreed to listen to the 50-minute interview with an open mind, and seemed quite pleased about the possibility of answering some of his questions.
A few days later, Sam asked to meet me after school to discuss the interview. He came well-prepared with crumbled-up piece of paper full of notes and questions. Additionally, Sam had already arranged a ride home a full hour later than usual.
So over two pops in the school cafeteria, Sam and I discussed all his reasons for disbelief as well as their consequences. In the end, it was one of the best discussions I have ever had with a student about the existence of God and the role of faith in our world. Before he left, I gave him more interviews on the subject of faith and reason and have no doubt that he will come again with more questions.
These days, time is one of the greatest obstacles to ministry. As ministers, we have to find ways to overcome that obstacle. I believe this often requires us to have those first conversations through the words of another, whether it be a movie, podcast, good book or article. Thirty seconds is not enough time to have a conversation, but it is plenty of time to make a recommendation. Most of the time, I find those recommendations lead to more time for us to discuss what is really important – the presence of God in our lives and our need to discuss it.
As I close, I wonder if those who use “new media” to comment with their favorite sources so others may benefit as well.
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.