An interview with Fr. Chuck Walker, new chaplain of Campus Catholic Ministries

By on September 11, 2014

“I’ll try not to cuss,” said Father Chuck Walker jokingly, as he sat down for this interview.

Walker started at U of L as chaplain of Campus Catholic Ministries in June, after being appointed in March to the position by the Archdioces of Louisville. The university has not had a full-time Catholic priest in 25 years, though almost one in three U of L students are Catholic. Walker views this as an opportunity to blaze a trail.

“Since it hasn’t been done here as a full-time job in such a long time, I’m the one who’s got to figure out how to do it. I’ve got to write the book. My whole life, I have always set the stage for someone else. I feel like John the Baptist. He was the one that said, ‘There’s somebody behind me. I’m preparing the way for that one.’ I’ll be doing that here, for whoever’s next,” said Walker.

“The worship that we have is good, but there are a whole lot of kids who are not coming. One of the challenges is going to be trying to figure out how to offer even more opportunities for them. It’s a very exciting opportunity to help students feel led and fed by their faith,” he said. “There are opportunities to do service with Habitat for Humanity and Hand in Hand Ministries. There are different parts of the Louisville community that could use student involvement. I’d like to reach out to our neighbors in the Interfaith Center, and right next door to us is the Baptist student center. I want to be involved with them.”

 

“Just regular guys”

Walker was born in 1953 in Loretto, Ky., which he described as “a very Catholic town.”

“When I was about 13, we moved up to Okolona (a neighborhood in Louisville). It was only after we moved there that mom and dad confided in me that there were only two non-Catholic families in Loretto. The priests were friends, the nuns were friends, I went to Catholic school, Catholic church. It was a whole Catholic community. So because of that, I always considered priesthood,” he said. “I saw the guys who were doing it were just regular guys … just good men trying to do a good thing.”

Walker graduated from DeSales High School, a Catholic boys school in Louisville. It was the guidance counselor, who was also a Carmelite priest, who helped put Walker on the educational path to priesthood. The closest Carmelite seminary was located at Marquette University, a Jesuit university in Milwuakee, Wis., and the counselor encouraged him to make a visit. Walker liked the school, but ultimately it was the weather that made the decision for him.

“Me and another guy from DeSales, we went up there for a visit during the winter, and it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. I came back and asked the guidance counselor about the other options,” he said.

 

Taking it slow

He settled on Bellarmine University, a small Catholic university in Louisville, intending to major in sociology.

“I always wanted to be helpful,” he said. “I thought I would finish my degree, then come over (to UofL) to get my masters in social work. I also considered joining the police force.”

Like many college students, though, Walker couldn’t decide what he wanted to do right away, so he took several breaks from school to think about it. He took jobs at grocery stores and a factory, taking it slow while he considered what he was going to do with his life. On one of the last breaks he took, he was with an aunt in her kitchen when she remarked, “You’ll never be happy unless you become a priest.”

“That kind of kicked me in the butt in a big way. I started thinking about that, praying about that, and I realized that she was right. I had to do this,” Walker said. He re-enrolled in seminary.

But when he got back, just before his senior year, the university decided to shut down its seminary program. Walker was forced to transfer to Saint Meinrad, a seminary in southern Indiana, to complete his studies.

“When I transferred there, they didn’t have a sociology major,” he said. “I had 18 hours of philosophy already, so my senior year was 18 more hours of philosophy, to be able to graduate with a degree in that. But I never liked the topic … I don’t relate to pie-in-the-sky, philosophy types. Jesus was a guy who related to no-matter-who. That’s what I feel like I’m doing.”

And Walker readily admits that he is human: he told me during our interview that he had particular trouble during his final years of seminary education with the priestly committment to celibacy.

“I dated when I was in high school. I dated when I was at seminary, even up until about a year before I was ordained. There were women in my life that were very attractive, and women are still very attractive to me. I’ve been a virgin all my life, and I’ll be a virgin until I die, but there’s a chemistry. God made us the way we are. We’re attracted to who we’re attracted to … Finally, I had one of those revelatory moments when God said to me, ‘Trust in me, I’ll get you through any trial.’ And he has,” Walker said.

He was finally ordained at age 27 in 1981.

 

“One strong place”

Since becoming a priest, he has worked with several churches across Kentucky to merge their parishes and associated schools. He took a ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ approach to the mergers. These experiences have taught him some important lessons about people and their faiths.

“People are very attached to the places where they worship. They like how it looks, how it smells,” Walker said. “But the goal was always to provide a good Catholic community and education. If students keep dropping out and parishioners keep leaving, we won’t have anyone left. I’d rather have one strong place than three or so feeble places.”

 

Forever young

Walker has also worked with college students in the past: as an associate pastor at a church in Danville, Ky., he served as the chaplain to the students of Centre College.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve worked with youth, and I always related well to young adults,” he said. “And refusing never to grow up — that’s helped a lot.”

That eternal youth sometimes manifests itself in mischevious ways.

Walker is a die-hard U of L fan who has been attening football and basketball games since he was a teen. His all-time favorite Cardinal sport is right here at Ulmer Stadium: baseball.

“I like to buy a bag of peanuts and stick them in my pocket at the beginning of the game,” he said. “So when I see people I know coming up and down the aisles  (Walker pauses, and makes a series of short, quick throwing motions) — I hardly ever eat any of the peanuts.”

 

About Simon Isham

Simon Isham is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Louisville Cardinal, where he has worked since 2012. For his reporting at the Cardinal, he has won awards from the Kentucky Press Association and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also written for LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville. He graduated in December 2014.

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