By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series
One year ago, on May 9, 2009, I was ordained a priest. Of course all the usual reflections have flashed in my mind over the past few days: What have I learned? Is it what I thought it would be? Does it feel like a year? Which moments have been the most significant? Etc. …
However, perhaps because I am a teacher, the question that causes the most pause is what I would like to pass along to others who are considering this journey.
Recently, I was told by a friend that, to her, my priesthood is best summed up in the words of Nehemiah: “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). After our conversation, I went back to read the whole passage and was reminded that Nehemiah’s exhortation occurs in the context of worship, among people who are saddened by the demands of God. Nehemiah challenges them to see the day, not as a burden, but as holy.
I am quite fond of speaking about our paths to holiness, about how we create the right environment for ourselves in order to experience God’s mercy and grace. The past year of my priesthood has indeed been a path to holiness, and my friend is quite right — the joy of the Lord has been my strength.
Priesthood is not easy. Your heart must learn to hold the joys and sorrows of those you serve. At the same time, you will undoubtedly make mistakes or wish you could have responded/performed a little better. Then you remember that this is the first year of many, and you give yourself permission to be a rookie. Perhaps the difference between seeing the day as a burden or as holy is being OK with knowing you don’t know.
Over the past year, I have learned the two secrets of the spiritual life are most certainly acceptance and gratitude – not because they are unknown but, rather, that they are so hard to master. I have learned that faith is the convergence of our experience and our hope, and when all else doesn’t, our faith is what unites us. In turn, that unifying faith is most clearly seen in the rituals and liturgy that make God’s grace so evident.
I believe my primary role as a priest is to make that grace visible – something I never really understood until now. In seminary, we are taught to “safeguard” the sacraments, and while that is most certainly true, there is a delicate balance between making “safe” and making “visible.”
I have learned that the worst reason for doing anything is “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” And if the secrets of the spiritual life are acceptance and gratitude, then vulnerability is how you learn them. For so many reasons, priesthood is risky business, but only unnecessarily so when you forget your place and your prayer.
Perhaps far too many of us have seen the ugly side of priesthood this past year. Most certainly, I have been affected by the sadness I have witnessed. Years ago, I adopted a personal slogan that seems even more appropriate now than it did then: “Accountability is what often lies between a problem and a solution.” Lord, I can only pray …
So one year later, the emotions of my ordination day still stir deep within, only now they are mixed with the faces and stories of those I have met since May 9, 2009. I could have never imagined all that God would do through me; yet, I think I am more struck by what God has done to me through the lives of those to whom I minister.
“The joy of the Lord is our strength” – yes, that sums it up quite nicely … for all of us, I pray.
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.