Year for Priests: Praying outside the box

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Over the past couple of weeks, I have met with a number of people about prayer, and since Lent is around the corner it seems fitting to pass along a few fruits from the conversations.

For most of the people with whom I speak, prayer is a conundrum.  We are told that prayer is essential to our spiritual life, but just about everyone I know feels that prayer is a struggle.  We are told that prayer is how we dialogue with God, but most of the time, it feels awkward and one-sided.  In my own past experience, I found that priests often had very little to say on the subject, seemingly because they struggled as much as everyone else.  So what are we to do?

I have always believed the first step is to take the whole idea of prayer out of the 12th-century box in which we keep it.  Whether we know it or not, most of us have a mental picture of what “good” prayer is supposed to be like, and usually it is contemplative, ritualized and originated in a monastery. However, prayer is much more than all that.

Second, we have to understand that there are as many different kinds of prayer as there are traditions in the church.  We can use broad categories like formal, informal, collective, individual, contemplative, active, introverted and extroverted (just to name a few), but even those hardly grasp the vast treasury of prayers prayed by the church.

I should note that throughout my formation, I struggled immensely with prayer, largely because I did not feel the presence of God at 5:30 a.m. in a dimly-lit, absolutely silent chapel.  As an extrovert, I wanted to sing, write and “voice” my prayer.  I eventually discovered that 90 percent of Religious men and women are introverts, so it makes sense that the adopted prayers of Religious are more contemplative.

Ultimately, I believe that prayer is anything that makes us more aware of, and increases our ability to accept grace.  It is anything that reminds us that we are not our own saviors.

Most of us are not called to live in a cloister, so if we take St. Paul’s words, “to pray without ceasing,” to heart, it means that prayer is not so much an action, as it is a disposition – a state of mind.

This means that not only is a rosary a prayer, but so is Mass.  Not only is a chapel a place of prayer, but so is nature.  Prayer can be a discussion about God in a coffee shop, a good book that makes us aware of our need for God, a beautiful song, journal time, and so on.

But all this is not to say that prayer is not a discipline, because it is.  Prayer is not a series of random thoughts, but a concentration on the presence of God in our midst in that moment.

In the end, my favorite quote about prayer comes from Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who once wrote, “Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving.”

No amount of prayer will ever earn us our salvation.  Prayer is our response to God’s grace.  But the more that we pray, the better we become at saying “thank you” and asking others for help and recognizing their needs beyond our own.  Through our prayer, we not only improve our relationship with God, but we also improve our relationship with those around 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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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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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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Year for Priests: Investing in ourselves with purpose

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Every year Advent seems to catch us off guard.  As the weeks pass from one to four, we come out of the darkness into the marvelous light of awareness, so appropriately symbolized by the four candles of the season.  The often sloppy habits with which we are far too comfortable begin to call out like John in the desert:  “Repent, Repent, you can do better than this!  Wake up, Wake up!”

Advent is a time of reconciliation, which means I am a little more busy than usual.  After teaching classes the long Monday after Thanksgiving break, I went directly from school to a neighboring parish to hear confessions for a little over two hours.  When I finally got home late that evening, I just flopped in a chair and turned on the Saints and Patriots Monday Night Football game.  While I intended for my mind to relax, I soon found myself thinking about the contrast between all that I saw on the television and all that I just heard during the confessions.

As I watched the fans, listened to the commentators and thought about the Fantasy Football implications, it occurred to me how much energy so many people devote to a game that is so temporary and of which they have no control!  I could not help but wonder: What would the world be like if even a fraction of our time and emotions were put into prayer and the relationships with those near to us?

Of course, this is not to say there is no value in leisure, sporting events and the like, but I could not help but question their purpose and priority.  As I began my classes the following day, I wondered about the balance of other things, so I decided to give my students an assignment to determine their daily time/activity allocation.  Personally, I was curious — just how many hours in a day are devoted to Facebook, video games, texting and sports?

Upon completion of the assignment, my students were also amazed at how much time they spend procrastinating and daydreaming; nor did they realize how much time they spend texting (some over five hours a day).  Most of them spend far more time playing video games than doing homework, and if video games, Facebook, and TV are combined, they occupy more hours of the day than sleeping.  In the end, many of them are quite unhappy about the way they spend their day, especially when I asked them if I could show this list to their parents, teachers or future employers!

Many of us associate Advent with confession and repentance; thus, it is fitting to spend some quality time examining our conscience.  However, this is also the beginning of a new year (liturgically speaking) and so it seems also appropriate to make a new resolution.  Perhaps a good start is to do your own evaluation of your daily activities.  What takes up your time?  Does this usage represent the relationship you want with God?

In the end, everything comes down to our purpose.  Just as no one activity is bad, nor is any one activity good outside of our purpose.  Thus, it seems our goal is to be more purposeful with our time, our energy, and our emotions.  If we are, I am betting we will all have far less to confess when Christmas comes alive.

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

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Year for Priests: A Roman testament to political action

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — The noise about the proper place for the church in debate on public issues seems ironic in Europe. If only people could get as “fired up” as the United States seems to be! Granted, most of the heat is about public funding of abortion, but the willingness of Catholic bishops to take on immigration issues and the war in Iraq is heartening.

I was struck by a similar testament to political action while walking down the quiet Via di Monserrato. One of its Renaissance palaces is home to the Venerable English College. Originally the site of a rosary-selling business, the property was bought by an English guild in 1326 to become a hospice for pilgrims. But that was just the beginning. During the Elizabethan Age, it would earn the title “Venerable” by schooling seminarians who were sent back secretly to England to re-convert the populace to Roman Catholicism. In the course of a single, tumultuous century, many were executed, including 44 who were officially recognized as martyrs by the Catholic Church.

I stood in front of the seminary chapel, built in 1866 on the site of the old hospice. The medieval street retains its practical curve, honing to the meanderings of the Tiber, but little else suggests the struggles that went on here. Across the street lies Philip Neri’s church, San Girolamo della Carità. Each morning, this engaging evangelist would greet the English seminarians with a cheery, “Salvete flores martyrum” (Hail, flowers of the martyrs).

In 1580, just before the execution of the first priest sent back to England from here, Durante Alberti painted the “Martyr’s Picture” for the high altar of the church (right). In dramatic, Counter-Reformation style, it depicts God the Father holding his martyred Son out to St. Thomas Beckett (martyred by Henry II) and Blessed Edmund of East Anglia (martyred by King Ivar of the Danes); above them, a cherub holds aloft the seminary’s motto: Ignem veni mittere in terram – “I have come to bring fire on the earth.”

Frescoes of some of the martyrs and their associates were painted on the seminary walls for the edification of the priests-in-training. Their clandestine efforts to bring England back to Roman Catholicism were not extinguished until the death of the last public claimant to the throne, Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal-Duke of York in 1807. As in so many countries, finally, the civil wars of England had to give way to plain civility. But in Rome, glorious memories are valued and savored for centuries. Who knows where such fire will blaze next time.

Rome Diary

Nov 4 — A group of 8th graders from Copenhagen come for Sunday Mass. The school is only about 20 percent Catholic and yet it is seen as a good way to evangelize a “mission country” like Denmark, where few attend church anymore. The school’s chaplain is a priest from Kerala, India, who is “learning Danish on the side.” Last year, when I visited St. Cecilia’s Convent in Trastevare, I met two novices – one from Brooklyn, the other from Africa. As long as Europe’s vocation crisis lasts, outsourcing seems the thing to do.

Nov. 12 — The police have confiscated the property of a German-American we have been helping for many years. He has income but, because of his mental illness, wishes to stay outdoors all year. It has been almost a year since he has started using the park bench in Piazza dei Risorgimento as home. Last week he told me he had purchased some plastic tubing to make a tent over his things to keep the rain off. Maybe that was it, but today, as I walk past the park, I see a big “X” taped on the empty bench. Obviously, it is a message from the authorities that he should not return to that spot. This is the gentle way officials sometimes have when handling situations no one wants to touch.

Nov. 17 — I respond to a call from Rubicon TV (Norway). A crew is visiting Rome and needs someone to comment about what our church does in Rome. During the half-hour interview, with cameras rolling, the reporter asks such questions as, “Can the pope work more than 371 days a year?” “Italy is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean; can you tell me how the pope can protect this ocean?” “There is a place that has lions in Rome, the Coliseum; can you tell me how to get tickets to it?” I found myself making slight suggestions: “The pope can’t work that long!” “What happened to the Mediterranean?” and “If only you had been here about 2,000 years ago!” As they pack up, the crew reveals that they are working on a children’s news show that features odd, humorous questions from the reporter to keep the kids watching. Yes, I was used, but for a good cause.

Nov. 21 — Today, in the school dining room, I sit next to a 10-year-old boy who, I notice, has a plate of capellini carbonara. Since kids love to talk about food, I open the conversation with, “I see you have bacon in your pasta, do you like bacon?” “Yes,” says the boy, “we have pigs on my father’s farm.” “Where is your father’s farm?” I ask. “Tanzania,” he responds. This stumps me until I find out it is a coffee farm and that the little boy, who spent his first years there, has experienced a bridge collapse, an elephant charging, and a black mamba threat. Rome must seem unbelievably dull to him!

Nov. 21 — At a small wedding dinner in a family restaurant near Piazza Barberini I ask the middle-aged couple how they came to have their first marriage now. The groom, who was born in Baghdad, holds up his gold wedding ring. “See this ring? It has a story. I was the youngest in my family. My father could see there were no opportunities for us in Iraq. My brothers and sisters all went out of the country when they could and I stayed to take care of my parents. In 1991, just after the Gulf War, there was a window of a few weeks when visas were issued. I escaped then, but I had to be careful. I bought a gold wedding band. I figured if I needed money, I could sell it. When the border police asked me about returning to the country, I held up my ring and said, ‘Of course I’m returning, I’m getting married as soon as I get back.’” He would be 10 years in Canada before he met his wife, but the ring, it had already done the most important part of its job — keeping the groom safe and sound.

Nov. 22 — Last night I spent two hours trying to write a homily for six-year-olds. I put as much work in describing the Bible story of the “Ten Lepers” as I would for a university congregation … only in reverse. That is, I try to simplify all the complicated ideas like leprosy, shunning, and gratitude to God. I am not sure I have done a good job at all. Fortunately, my services were not required. The kids talked about turkeys and Indians instead!

Nov. 25 — Thanksgiving is getting harder to describe happily. The more we learn about the Pilgrims, the harder it is to simply have a great feast. Unwarranted executions by Myles Standish (the Pilgrims’ military adviser), the stealing of food supplies, rivalries with other expeditions … that brief moment of tranquility and celebration gets briefer. Today at school the elementary students dress in their multicolored Zambia polo shirts, showing they are in solidarity with a fundraising project for an adopted Zambian school. In their own way, they’ve made the ideals of Thanksgiving global. After all, it is more than just a good meal.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Year for Priests: Ministry without politics

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

When I was first approached by Catholic News Service to contribute to this blog, I asked a lot of questions about their hopes for this initiative.  Among several ideas that I remember, I was told that is good to present what makes priesthood so amazing (as I understand it) and what makes it so challenging.  So after many entries of the amazing, I figured it is time to share one of my difficulties.

Good priests are also good politicians . . . and I wish it wasn’t the case.

I began to learn this lesson early in formation as I was frequently courted by priests who represent particular ministries and spiritualities.  Whether they were connected to the high schools, parishes, universities, social outreach organizations, liberal or more conservative theologies, the discussions and incentives were and are frequent and often aggressive.  In the seminary, you are under everyone’s microscope as they hope to find evidence of what you believe and in which direction you might lean.

What I did not understand is how much I was protected from these advancements when I was in formation.  Now that I am ordained, the protection is all but gone and I find myself at the mercy of those who try to influence my ministry through both blatant and covert actions.  In my prayers, I frequently reflect on the wisdom of Jesus to spend those first years of ministry away from the powers that could distract him from his purpose.  In my prayers, I long to spend all of my energy thinking about and being present to the people I wish to serve rather than drafting letters of concern and defense.  And in the quiet moments in my car, I am all too aware of the number of young priests who have left the priesthood shortly after ordination because they were unprepared for the challenges of a political priesthood (and for other reasons).

Though I was never naïve enough to believe an organization the size of the Catholic Church would be absent of political agendas, I never believed they would demand so much of my energy. At the same time, I recognize the challenges of religious and diocesan leadership as they struggle to maintain harmony between the energy of the young and the loyalty of the aged.  In the end, the challenges of the priesthood often translate into choices between tradition and innovation.  In what I truly believe is a new “springtime” of the church, I am all too aware of the painful pruning process that is required for new growth to bear fruit, and for that reason, am in awe of the task that lies before the church leaders of today.

Despite these struggles, I also believe that the church is still the best means by which God’s grace is transmitted to the world; thus, I remain firmly in love with her — for all her gifts and her faults.  Nevertheless, I think the Scriptures frequently remind us that we are much better off when we focus on the big picture.  Disharmony, impatience, frustration, maneuvering and infighting all occur when we are overly focused on how things are done, but it seems to me that Jesus was always more concerned on what and why things are done.

One of those who guided me in formation said that we should always judge by the fruits of one’s work, relationships and ideas; and while I believe he is correct, I pray for a day when this sort of judgment is not necessary at all.  May I (and all of us) have the wisdom to understand the balance.

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

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Year for Priests: Answering a ‘great’ question

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

A couple of weeks ago, an older gentleman, who I will name Steve, approached me after Mass, convinced that I was the right person to answer a question that he has been unable to answer for the past 30 years.   He would go on to warn me that many people have tried, thinking they were up to the task, but failed to satisfy the logical mind of a retired Ford engineer.

“What are some of the rational and logical explanations that could explain WHY a “Good & Kind & Loving & All-Powerful God” would create an Earth populated by emotional & greedy humans who have free will to do as they please only to watch them destroy each other and eventually die to never be heard from again at which time they will be judged for their sins he already knew they would commit and shuttle them off to Heaven or Hell?”

After handing me a printed copy of the question above, we agreed that I would come to his house for dinner and discuss the question.

This past week, Steve and I met as planned. After the usual small talk, Steve told me about the God who saved him from the depths of darkness.  He also rattled off tenets of the Baltimore Catechism as he described a Catholic faith that provided his life with necessary parameters, rules and categories.  Later, Steve would describe the great hurt he felt when he was laid off by Ford, and the great joy he felt when he married his wife 40 years ago this year.

As Steve spoke, I prayed that God might use me to give him the answers he so desperately longed to have. At the same time, I wished that my high school students could be with me that evening to hear someone speak with such meaning about life’s deepest longings and most simple blessings.

When it was finally my turn to respond, I prayed and started to speak.

When it comes to our faith, many of us start off on the wrong foot — mostly likely because that is what we were taught to do.  We have approached our relationship with God in categories:  this equals that; that equals this; and this has such and such consequence that requires such and such to remedy it.  The difficulty with this approach is that our faith is first and foremost a relationship; therefore, it does not fit so neatly into categories, nor is it easily mapped out into problem-and-solution statements.

Thus, our relationship with God is not defined by our devotions and obligations; rather, by its gifts and communication.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving.”  I have always loved that quote because it puts the emphasis on the process.  What we learn simply by being in this relationship is that we are not nearly as independent as we believe.  The very act of praying reminds us that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.

In response to Steve’s question, I think its answer lies in our very ability to ask the question.  Ultimately, Steve’s question concerns the meaning of our lives.  Yes, God could have made humanity without the capacity to sin, but the meaning of our life is increased because of our potential — in either direction.  I believe a fulcrum is a good metaphor:  the greater the distance between the poles, the greater our ability to rise to greatness.  Our dignity is found in the tension we hold along the spectrum of good and evil, and our challenge is see ourselves as God sees us.  Ultimately, we are worth saving because we are not only greedy, but also generous; not only selfish, but also selfless.

As for Steve, he was more than satisfied with my answer (which I have greatly condensed for this blog).  After I finished my explanation, I watched him think to himself for at least 10 minutes with his eyes closed and head tilted back.  Much like a computer processing through equations, Steve tried to find holes in the logic.  Somewhere along the way, he accepted that God could not not have created us, because love, in its essence, is generative.  God creates, and what God creates is great.  Amen.

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

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