Meet Father Chris Valka, CSB
In his current role as Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas, Fr. Chris Valka, CSB approaches ministry as a restoration process. “My priesthood has been defined by restoration. Through careful discovery and discernment, I look at what to keep, what to let go of, and what to transform. I love history, but I especially love how history can be brought to life anew.” he said.
In June 2017, he was appointed to the University of St. Thomas as the Director of the Center for Faith and Culture and he began by looking into how the school’s legacy can be applied with the realities of today. He started by finding the right questions to ask to elicit the right answers as the institution goes through a refounding. He realized that today’s student body more closely resembles the student body during its founding 70 years ago when it was established as a coeducational institution to serve the Hispanic community.
This most recent appointment has also been a time to recharge as he’s returned home after 13 years away. He enjoys having the opportunity to see his parents, William and Barbara, and his younger brother, Michael, and his family, including three nephews who all still live in Houston, Texas.
Father Chris grew up in an idyllic suburb of Houston where neighborhood boys played in the street or in the front yard. His parents were early members of his home parish, St. James the Apostle in Spring, which at the time was administered by the Holy Cross Fathers. His parents started and organized the altar serving program and served on the parish council. As a teenager he worked in church maintenance and Father Chris jokes that his life hasn’t changed that much; throughout his priestly ministry he often finds himself at church all day long and sometimes doing maintenance on the property. “I have found ministry is about creating spaces for people to encounter God, and then getting out of the way. The right space is very important, so I have always worked hard at that.”
In 1993, he attended World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado and for the first time he felt like he was brought into the greater Church. “I wanted to be a part of something that could bring that many people together,” he said.
The experience prompted him to join the seminary following his high school graduation, but he left after a year and a half. During this time he left God and all things religious. At the same time he changed his major four times at three universities, before he received his degree in communications and public relations from the St. Edward’s University. Years later, while living in Houston, he met Father Jefferson Thompson, CSB, who was serving as campus minister. During Father Thompson’s 10th anniversary of ordination celebration, the pair ended up in a conversation. Father Chris described the conversation as, “Fr. Jeff asking direct questions and me giving elusive answers,” but it opened up new possibilities he thought long-forgotten.
He began discerning with the Basilians by going to prayer at their house every Sunday night while teaching in the public school district. At first, he was skeptical about joining the priesthood a second time around, but the Basilians were able to address his concerns. Chris realized that he was being called to religious life and was intrigued by the diverse range of ministries in which the Basilians worked.
“It was a very diverse and accepting community. I didn’t feel like I didn’t need to take on a different persona and they appreciated who I was,” he said. He liked the hybrid nature of the Congregation and the fact that it was a religious order with diocesan roots.
After two years, he and Morgan Rice, who was also discerning, went to teach at Holy Redeemer in Detroit, Michigan and from there, they spent their novitiate year in Sugar Land, Texas.
As a scholastic, he lived in Frassati House in Toronto, Ontario. His scholastic master was Father Thomas Rosica, CSB and in him he saw someone with same level of energy. While earning his Master in Theology, Chris was also working towards his Master in Education and involved in three different ministries.
He was ordained in St. Anne’s Parish in Houston, Texas on May 9, 2009 and spent his first year of ordained ministry teaching at Catholic Central. He was surprised to realize that he wanted to serve in a parish rather than a school because he initially became interested in the Basilians for their teaching ministry. “Through the grace of ordination, I wanted to make the sacraments a focus in my life,” he said.
He supplemented his teaching ministry with parish work, helping in two diocesan parishes by celebrating three or four masses each weekend. As it turned out, it was really Parish work that defined his first year of priestly ministry, even though he was appointed to teach in a high school.
In 2010, he was assigned to Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario as campus minister. At the time, Assumption Parish was in the middle of a complicated restoration campaign and there was no real Catholic campus ministry presence Assumption University or the University of Windsor. However, there was a rich history and it was from the history that Fr. Chris began to create something new. “Everywhere I have gone, I try to understand the history why things are the way they are,” he said.
He brought his pioneering mentality to his next appointment as pastor at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Toronto, Ontario. He ministered there from 2013 to 2017 and describes this time as remarkably creative. Under his leadership, the parish found ways to reinvent its identity within the University of St. Michael’s College and the City of Toronto. One of these ways was to create empowering work for the laity. Father Chris also applied his philosophy of restoration more tangibly as the church building was in need of renovations, some of which he undertook himself.
Now he is back in Houston and in addition to his ministry at the University, he serves as the Superior of Keon House. As a young priest at a time when everything is changing, Fr. Chris says that the greatest goal of his spiritual life is to live in the present, because that is where the grace of God is – not in the past or in the future, but right now. He is reassured that as the Congregation faces many decisions regarding its future the answers can be found through understanding the Congregation’s rich history.