Year for Priests: Saying goodbye

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

There are few joys that rival the beginning of the end to a school year.  Exuberant celebrations of paper tossing and book shelving give witness to the freedom students and teachers feel as they walk (or run) out of school, not to return until August.

Of course, the end of school also brings a bit of sorrow as we say goodbye to seniors and students who will not return, and part ways with teachers who have decided to move on.  This year, I am one of those teachers.

Over the past year, you have read about my adventures at Detroit Catholic Central High School, but now the time has come for me to say goodbye, both to my family at Catholic Central and to the many people who have read my thoughts over the past year, for this is also the end of the Year of Priests and reason for my contribution to Catholic News Service.

In my own mind, goodbye always equals thank you.  When the editors of CNS first asked me to contribute to this blog, I was both humbled by and a little nervous because of the proposal.  After all, I was stepping into a new ministry as a new priest, with very little idea of how I would process this first year.  Now I write words of gratitude for both have given me the opportunity and reason to reflect more purposely on the first year of my priesthood.  Quite simply, what I thought was an assignment turned out to be a gift.

Each of you has encouraged me to look for the “teachable moments” this past year – something of my experience that might be of value to the lives of others.  In short, you have helped me to become a better teacher, and for that I am thankful.

Like many of you, I have reflected on the spiritual meaning of this year – a year for priests and a year of great shame and disappointment in the wake of so many scandals.  Thus, I am reminded that this ministry is not about me; it is about God.  My own abilities will fail, but this year has reminded me, in many ways, that my love for God must be at the heart of everything I do.

I was told during formation, “God give the best to those who give God the choice.”  Over the years, I have found many blessings in making oneself available, but most especially over this past year.  Scripture teaches that our answer is always “yes;” let God worry about the rest.  In many respects, I hold that idea as a mantra and have been humbled by all that God has done in just one year – much of which, you, as readers, have witnessed through this blog.

Now the time comes for a new assignment – one that is perhaps even more challenging than those before it.  I have been asked by my community to revive campus ministry at the University of Windsor in Ontario.  The Basilians have always provided pastoral care for students on the Windsor campus, but things have been quiet for a number of years.  Now the Basilians have decided the time is right to put the focus on the pastoral ministry at the university.

I must confess that I am intimidated by the responsibility that has been given to me, but I take solace knowing that I did not chose this.  Once again, my community has helped me to see something in me that I did not see for myself, and once again, I am very thankful.

May God bless each of you along your journey, and may you be blessed enough to discover the teachable moments and pass along what you have learned.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May 2009 and has been teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Year for Priests: The “cool” church

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

. . . and to this the student responded, “You can’t do that.  You don’t ask questions like that . . . you just don’t.” (The written word doesn’t capture his emphasis and shock, but believe me it was there).

You would have thought he was responding to something illegal or forbidden, but as it turns out, he was responding to me – a priest asking him why he believed in God and why he is Catholic.

Life at the end of the school year takes on a decidedly different pace.  We are all itching to get out and enjoy the warm sunny days that are now finally upon us.  In order to avoid the discipline problems that usually accompany “traditional” forms of class work, I decided it was time for a new, more interactive, approach.

Using provocative videos I have collected over the years, podcasts such as those featured on my own site, Attuned, and interactive multimedia websites such as PBS Frontline, my students and I have become faith-based analysts of society.  The media creates the forum for discussion:  provoking, engaging and providing a compelling, multifaceted world view.

Together my students and I discuss the questions they are usually never allowed (or given the opportunity) to ask:  “So, how do we know we are right?  How can we say Muslims, Jews or Buddhists don’t have the right path to heaven and we do?”  “If the church is so concerned about the poor, why doesn’t the pope just sell some stuff and take care of them?”  “Are people really born gay?”  “Why do I have to go to Mass when I am more prayerful outdoors?”  “Why didn’t God just make everyone believe?”  “If God is so merciful, why does he send people to hell?”

For three weeks, my public-speaking students learn how to articulate their beliefs, see the value in another point of view, and facilitate some of the most controversial topics of their age.  Perhaps because I am priest, our discussions inevitably circle back to Catholicism.

You may be surprised just how many teenagers, even in a Catholic context, can rattle off tenants of the faith, without accepting all but a few of them.  Many remain unconvinced, not because belief is illogical, but because it is seemingly inauthentic.

After a documentary on media and marketing, we had a long discussion on what is “cool.”  To the teenage boy, “cool” pushes the limit, and is always relevant to what is most important.  Using their own definition, I eventually asked if being Catholic was cool?  In their minds, Catholicism should be cool because it stands outside of the accepted norms in society, but much to their frustration, God, as mediated by the Church, stopped being relevant and cool a long time ago.

According to my students, both God and the church appear “old,” but they admitted that our discussions were changing their perception.  As they elaborated, we all concluded that “old” results from a lack of relevance.  Cool is being able to discuss, understand, and feel like they are heard and able to contribute.  Cool is integrated, connected and diverse.

Of course, cool is also not the mainstream, but they concluded that if they really lived their faith, they would probably never have a problem being, by their own definition, cool.

Their challenge to me was quite clear:  The more discussions they have about their faith, the cooler it will become.  The more questions we ask, the more willing we are to let the youth speak, the more we connect our faith to our world – the more cool it will be for all of us.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May 2009 and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Year for Priests: One year ago …

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.

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Year for Priests: Asking students what they want from life

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking with students about life after high school.  College is a given for my students, but few really know what they want to do with their education.  Their imagination conjures lofty ideas of success, measured by objects and a level of happiness.  Like most high school students, they hope for an exciting career with stability, disposable income, family, and plenty of time for their favorite sport.

Most of the time, I simply smile and chuckle a little. But this past week I decided it was time for a different approach.  I asked my students to make a list of 15 things or events that brings them excitement.  At first, they thought this would be easy as they quickly rattled off numbers one through five . . . or six, but then it began to get tough.

Go ahead, give it a try for yourself.  Make a list of 15 things/events that brings you excitement.

Difficult?  We would like to think that it is easy, but I find that there are few things that we really get excited about.  I explained to my students that excitement requires humility.  Excitement comes with surprise.  When we expect a certain level of fulfillment or believe we are entitled to this or that — there is often little excitement involved.  Think about it — when have you been the most excited?  I would guess that it is usually when you had no idea an event or gift was coming.

So the lesson here is:  more humility = more excitement in life.

Years ago, I read an article by Kathleen McAlpin in Review for Religious where she wrote, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything.  It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do in the evening, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”

As I paraphrased this quote off the top of my head, I asked my students a second question:  “What are you convicted about?”

Based on the classroom discussion, I would guess 90 percent of my seniors know what they want in life, but they have no idea how to get it.  They are influenced by media-driven images of success and self-centered notions of duty; and yet, I believe their heart is in the right place.  My students, like all young adults, are a reflection of their environment, so all it takes is a different environment for them to see a different path.  As we discussed it all, my students determined that the quality of their education is not simply measured by the number of books they read, but by how many people they encounter.

I find many adults short-change the ability of young people to contribute to the world.  There are many days when my students frustrate me, but there are also days when I am amazed at their goodness and creativity.  If young people seem selfish, I wonder if it is because we, as the adults, have not empowered them to take on a challenge they feel is worthy of the risk and effort.

Father Adolfo Nicolás, the superior general of the Jesuits, said,  “We must recover our ability to dream great things.  We need dreams that cannot be sold, dreams that say maybe there is something for me to contribute.  Our lives must reflect the reality:  the only security we have is hope.”

If we are to be a model for our young people today, perhaps we can start by dreaming a little more and a little bigger than usual.  Perhaps we can share those dreams with the young people in our lives.  Perhaps the humility we are looking for will come from the excitement in their lives.

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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Year for Priests: Gracious living

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Once a month, the boys of Catholic Central gather for an all-school Mass, often celebrating one of our many patrons.  Being that the school mascot is the shamrock, St. Patrick was a significant day of celebration, and so I was surprised that our local superior chose one of our retired priests, who is very rarely at the school (and who the students do not know), to preside over the celebration.

Throughout the Mass, it was quite evident that this man was moved by the opportunity to be a priest and teacher to the students once again.  Tears of joy rolled down his face at the end of the homily, causing many of us to take notice. And his words of wisdom opened a window of time for all those who never knew him as a physics teacher.

Early the next day, I saw this priest in one of our common rooms at the house and thanked him for his words, citing a few specific nuggets that I found particularly meaningful.  To this he responded that I was the first of the priests to thank him or comment on his homily.  I paused.  I was immediately saddened that no one else had taken the time to say “thank you.”

I have often wondered why praise and gratitude is so hard to come by.  Why are we so quick to criticize and so slow to affirm?

Growing up, my father and I called such affirmations “warm fuzzies” and often solicited them from each other.  Some might recall that stores used to sell little fuzzy balls with bubbly eyes, feet and a positive message on them such as “You’re Terrific” or “Great Job!”  My father often came home from work a bit envious of us, as kids, because our teachers would give them out on special occasions.  He jokingly commented that we should give “warm fuzzies” out to everyone, not just kids.  To this day, the two of us will still phone each other and ask for a “warm fuzzy” when the day has been particularly tough.

Perhaps for this reason, I have always believed that gratitude is one of the great secrets of the spiritual life (a secret, not because it is unknown, but because it so hard to implement).  Gratitude is the result of a life lived in grace, but it does not come without awareness on our part.  Gratitude is not a simple emotion; rather it is a learned discipline to recognize that ALL of life is “gift.”

Sometimes we forget the implicit connection between grace and gratitude.  Notice that even the adjective commonly used to describe a grateful person is “gracious.”  And I wonder —  how often do we used this word to describe those around us, or even ourselves?

Indeed, I was bit saddened when I left the common room that morning, but not simply for my friend.  Throughout the day, I reflected on how often I find myself quietly complaining (even if only in my mind) about the events of my day.  Yes, I say “thank you” and give God praise each day, but if I were to tally the thoughts of gratitude and thoughts of complaint, I wonder how my sheet would look?  I think I will title it “Gracious Living” and see how I do.

Maybe I can even find a few “warm fuzzies”, like the ones I used to get in school, and give them to God.  Who knows, next time you come to the parish, you may find one next to the statue of the Sacred Heart or on the staff desks at the office.

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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A bit of ‘how-to’ on priests, ministry and ‘new media’

By Basilian Father Chris Valka

In response to my previous post, “Responding to the pope’s challenge on ‘new media’,” I have been asked to share a little more about my own efforts in the “new media.”

My hope is to provide a few practical applications and reasons for using blogs and podcasts, in addition to offering a little technical expertise as to how one might get started.

The Blogs

Currently, I administer two blogs:

  • “reVerb” features my own homilies and retreat talks in an audio format (complete with RSS feed for iTunes) and is located at:
  • “Attuned” is a sort of “greatest hits” collection of inspirational and captivating interviews designed to give people an introduction into the world of podcasts.  Also available as an RSS feed, it may be found at

Attuned is actually a remake of a different blog I began as a campus minister. I often spoke to many students who wanted to learn more about their faith, but few of them had the time or concentration for additional reading.  Thus, I created the blog now known as Attuned so that students could listen to something “on-the-go” during the week.  Once a week, we would gather at a coffee shop on campus to discuss the interview and their thoughts.  More or less, it was a book club without the books – perfect for college students and busy people.

My hope has always been that Attuned would not only give parishioners and students a place to go for quality interviews, but more importantly to advertise those podcasts that are worth the listen.  You will notice that not all are Catholic or religious, but each one makes for quality conversation, which I believe is the purpose of mass media.  As I understand it, the media is a means to an end; a way to build community, if we let it.

reVerb came about in response to the family members of the sick and homebound who do not have an opportunity to get to Mass every Sunday.  While these individuals receive the Eucharist, and could read the readings at home, they missed the homily — until now.  In addition, some parents of young children explained the difficulty of concentrating during Mass while “entertaining” their little ones.  Humbled by the requests, I decided it was time to put my technical knowledge to use.

As for a little technical know-how. . . .

Blogs are fairly easy to create, and free, using sites like WordPress or Blogger, and I find are the best way to post ideas on the Web.  Recording one’s homily or presentation requires a digital recorder (which can be purchased at just about any electronics store for around $50) and a lapel microphone, which I found at Radio Shack for roughly $10.

In order to minimize edit-time, I turn on the microphone just before I read the Gospel and turn it off just after the homily.  Once I get home, I plug it into the audio input of my computer, edit the file and upload it to a server.  (At this point, one has to have some simple audio-editing program, such as Apple’s Garageband.)

The Harvest

When all is said and done, the online aspect takes an additional 30 minutes of time, but I can attest, it is well worth the time.  Not only do those who were not present have the opportunity to hear your thoughts, but so do those who wish to hear again in the middle of the week, or those who want to share it with friends.

Now, there are people coming to church who never came before; people scheduling appointments that I have never met; people asking really good questions and engaging in wonderful discussions about their faith.  I have found the key is keeping the audio fairly short and concise – and it doesn’t hurt to be a bit provocative from time to time.

Certainly, these new forms of evangelization are daunting, but then again, so is any form of evangelization.  We are called by Jesus and challenged by the pope to take the Gospel to all who are willing to listen, and if we are to do so, then we must learn to utilize our own energies through the media and each other.

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.

Year for Priests: Responding to the pope’s challenge on ‘new media’

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.

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