Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Priest in the Pits: New Evangelization Comes to the Indy 500

Sunday may be the Christian Sabbath, but the work of Dario Franchitti and Glenn O'Connor at the 96th Indianapolis 500 kept this day holy in a unique way. A now three-time champion, Franchitti, "took the checkered flag after a rousing finish that rewarded an estimated crowd of 220,000 that braved 91-degree heat, one degree short of the hottest 500, in 1937."  While he was driving and competing to honor the late Dan Wheldon, his friend and a fellow driver who died in crash last October, Father Glenn O'Connor was honoring God in a unique way.  For one Sunday out of the year, Fr. O'Connor won't be found celebrating mass at his parish.  No, this priest is in the pits...I had a chance to talk to him about his favorite other ministry.
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. Father Glenn O’Connor may preach the words of 1 Corinthians 12 on Sunday as pastor at both St. Joseph and St. Anne parishes in Indianapolis but he lives the message as a member of a pit crew at the Indy 500. Every member of a race team has a very specific role, an important job to fulfill. And for the last 35 years, Fr Glenn has been contributing on the Indy speedway and in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in his own unique way.
His formation in the pits parallels his formation to the priesthood.  Fr. Glenn, 60, was in the seminary when he first began working as a member of a pit crew. His brother in law, Joe Flynn crashed his car and needed some help. Fr. Glenn has always loved racing, so to contribute to the sport and the community in such a critical way was and still is an honor. Both responsibilities have been sources of great joy.  In fact one has influenced the other. 
Father Glenn has brought his priestly ministry to the track in formal and informal ways.  Although he is not the official chaplain of the Indy 500, he is an active member of the Indy Racing League (IRL) ministry team, which serves the spiritual needs of the open wheel community. And the demands of racing--traveling, pressure, injury, victory and failure—take a spiritual toll as well.  Fortunately, Father Glenn offers an early mass on race day.  He takes part in an ecumenical prayer service before every race, he has ministered funerals for drivers and their families and continues to spread the “good news.”  We sought to know what he has learned “in the pits.”

Your vocation has led you to many different ministries-what led you to racing and the priesthood?
As a native of Indianapolis, racing is something I grew up with. Interestingly enough, the same is true with regard to my vocation.  My father was in the seminary and although he left, he remained close friends with his classmates.  As a result, I was familiar with the life of a priest; all that my father learned had an impact on me.

In the 35 years you’ve been involved in auto racing, how has it changed?
Sponsorship has had the greatest impact on the sport.  There is so much more money involved, at least for teams that are sponsored.  Those without corporate sponsorship subcontract pit crews, which is much more affordable.  I help out with that type of crew.

Before sponsorship, if a car crashed and a part was not available in your pit, teams would share parts.  Competition was much more open.  Now, teams are more secretive with what they have—they are not as open to share.  As a result, the sense of community has diminished.
Today’s drivers are much more professional.  They can earn millions of dollars and are in tiptop shape physically and psychologically. These athletes are held to an even higher standard.  Sponsors are not willing to back up drivers who aren’t good role models.  They must be articulate and be good businessmen.  Brian Barnhart, the Chief Operating Office of the IRL will reprimand drivers for unsportsmanlike conduct, possession of drugs, etc.  
 And over the years, how has your ministry changed?
One of the greatest challenges for me as a priest is to evangelize.  But the best way to do that is to bring the Gospel to people—wherever and however. In the garage area, people come to me with questions, seeking confession, and so on.  Racers are no different than anyone else.  They battle depression, deal with crisis and suffer illness and are in need of spiritual guidance.  I have been doing this so long, people know who I am and what I do, so there is a comfort level. Ultimately my ministry hasn’t changed.

What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a member of the pit crew?
Every racing team has its own challenge—a lack of money, lack of an experienced driver, some teams are short on help, and others must work longer hours.  Every pit crew faces adversity, but the most successful teams know how to handle it.
That sounds like a great analogy for our lives of faith. Do you mention auto racing in your homilies? 
Oh sure, my parishioners love hearing about racing.  I try to relate the Gospel to our lives and what we love.  Racing makes that easy to do.

Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both emphasized the need for New Evangelization during their papacies.  "New Evangelization" is the call for Catholics to proclaim the Gospel in new ways. I like to think what Fr. Glenn is doing is new evangelization at its best.  We can meet Jesus' message in Scripture, in spiritual writings, or a conversation in unlikely places--even the Indy 500.

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