Deacon Chris reflects on his path to the priesthood
By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor
It was a hot day and Chris Ballard, who admits he was a little on the scrawny side, was walking home from school carrying his bookbag and his saxophone case. Because the walk was long and the burden was heavy, he’d usually make a few stops along the way. One was at the local Boys and Girls Club.
The secretary at the front door knew Chris from his regular drop-ins, and on this particular day she said a box of stuff had just been donated. He was free to look through and see if there was anything in there that interested him.
In among the old books and bits of unwanted junk was a crucifix.
“It was this old, lead, heavy crucifix,” Deacon Chris said in an interview a few days before his ordination.
But he knew he wanted that.
“It’s stayed with me for many, many years of, well, everything. Craziness,” he said.
Although Deacon Chris is only 27, he has known for a very long time that he has wanted to be a priest. But it hasn’t been an easy road.
“I was born to a family that did not practice their faith,” Deacon Chris said. On his grandmother’s insistence, he was baptized and sometimes he went to Mass with her. At the time, the only thing that really interested him was the collection and the sign of peace.
But after his parents divorced when he was four years old, Deacon Chris and his father went to live with his grandmother. Both still worked during the day, so he was put in the care of a babysitter who happened to be very devoted to her faith. With about 10 little children gathered around her, she would read the Scriptures to them before lunch.
Deacon Chris became friends with the babysitter and her family and sometimes went to church with them. But as his friends went up to receive communion, he had to stay in his seat. “I really felt left out,” he said.
When he was in eighth grade, his aunt, who is also his godmother, suggested he attend RCIA classes. He made his first communion and confirmation, and by ninth grade, Deacon Chris was riding his bike to Mass by himself.
This is about when his vocation began to tug at him.
“It was very subtle, very quiet in my heart: ‘You should become a priest.’ But it was ordinary, it was real,” Deacon Chris said. “I liken it to, well, how do you know that this is the person you want to marry? You know it.”
During high school, he was on the swim team, played baseball and had a girlfriend. But he was also very involved in his youth group and saw his faith as a responsibility.
“The kids on the swim team, they called me Father Ballard,” he said.
He noticed a little blurb that his parish priest, Father Jim Quinn, had put in the bulletin: “If you think God is calling you, call me.”
“So I called him,” Deacon Chris said.
He spent a weekend at Wadhams Hall Seminary College in Ogdensburg. “I was hooked immediately,” he said. He saw guys who, just like him, liked movies and music and sports — and also liked praying. “And I thought, ‘I like sports and I like praying.’ So I told my girlfriend, ‘Sorry, I’m becoming a priest.’ She was kind of upset at the time,” Deacon Chris said, laughing, “but she understood.”
But he said his father had a harder time understanding his vocation, especially since Deacon Chris is an only child. “But since then he’s been able to tell me, ‘I’m proud of you,’” he said.
At 18, he enrolled in Fordham University in New York City and lived at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.
It was during this time that he met Father Gilberto Angel, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Father Angel brought Deacon Chris into his home every week for dinner with his family. This is where Deacon Chris became a fluent Spanish speaker. “I studied Spanish in high school and college,” he said, “but over food I learned more Spanish than I ever could have in a classroom.”
With Father Angel and his friends and family, Deacon Chris has traveled around the world, including trips to Italy, France, Switzerland, five trips to Mexico and a trip last May to Israel.
Father Angel vested Deacon Chris during his ordination. The moment is a significant one because the stole and chasuble represent the priestly ministry.
Deacon Chris said he loved his time in New York.
“Being in New York City, you had everything,” he said. “I was going to Yankees games a couple of times a week.” And even more than that, he found a group of men who were just like him. “We called each other ‘brother,’” he said. “We’re all there for the same purpose, and there’s a lot of comfort in that.”
But out of his class of 10 entering the seminary, Deacon Chris said he is the only one who continued on to ordination. “One of my best friends in all of my time at seminary, now he’s married with kids. I baptized his first baby,” he said.
As so many around him dropped out, Deacon Chris said he was challenged to decide whether he would continue. “I just kept discerning,” he said.
Another test of his vocation was the priest sex abuse scandal. It seemed that each day the newspapers were filled with more accusations against priests. “That was probably what shook my faith more than anything.”
He said he had always been taught to model himself not only on Jesus, but also on other priests.
“After that happened, I think it strengthened my vocation, because I realized that the church is more than just those individual priests that were making those mistakes,” he said. “My response had to be, ‘Let’s go deeper. It’s bigger than that.’”
Deacon Chris said the Knights of Columbus walked around the Fordham campus wearing buttons that said, “In solidarity with our priests.” He said this meant a great deal to him and really helped him get through a tough time.
“The Knights of Columbus, they were rock stars during that whole thing,” he said.
He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Fordham. He then went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Md.
Baltimore had good food, friendly people and lots of culture, he said, but there was one tremendous drawback: “I hate the Orioles.”
This was also when Deacon Chris had the chance to meet the young priests of the Syracuse Diocese who were in seminary at the time. He said Father Christopher Celentano, Father Michael Galuppi and Father Greg Kreinheder showed him a real sense of brotherhood — complete with the jokes and teasing.
“They’re pretty merciless,” Deacon Chris said. But they also encouraged him to look forward to his time in the Syracuse Diocese.
He has spent the past year at St. James in Johnson City, where he has put his Spanish language skills to use working with the Hispanic population. He has also come to know parishioners as well as the students at St. James School.
Deacon Chris could often be found in the schoolyard playing kickball with the eighth graders, and he said his time with the students helped him realize the positive impact that a priest can have on another person’s life.
He is also very aware of the positive impact others have had on his life. He has relied on the support of his aunts, Aileen Ballard and Alicia Carter, and especially his grandmother, Arlene Luckette.
Like any good grandmother, Luckette doesn’t make a secret of how she feels about Chris. “You don’t know how proud I am!” Luckette said. “I go up and tell people and I don’t even know them!”
She said she can remember when Chris was 13 and he sat her and his father down to tell him about his vocation. “He said, ‘I have a calling to be a priest.’ And when he said that, I knew. He didn’t say, ‘I want to be a priest,’ he said, ‘I have a calling.’”
Luckette said she knows Deacon Chris will be a wonderful priest, and she said people often come up to her to tell her how much they enjoy her grandson’s homilies. Luckette enjoys them, too, but she still had a little bit of advice: “I only had to tell him one thing. He kept using his hands, and I said, ‘Chris, you’ve gotta keep your hands down.’ And he said, ‘Grandma, how can I do that? I’m part Italian!’” she said, bursting into laughter.
Father Ballard celebrated his first Mass at St. James in Johnson City on Sunday, June 6.
One of the gifts brought up during the offertory was the crucifix he found in the box of junk when he was a boy. It was old and falling apart, but he had the corpus dipped in gold and asked a parishioner at St. James to build a wooden frame for the crucifix.
“It looks beautiful,” Ballard said. “The crucifix was really a symbol of my vocation — the suffering, the difficulties. It just shows how God can take anything and make it beautiful.”