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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Teach? Why Coach? What Do You Get Out of It?

What do I get from teaching?  What do I get from coaching? The easy answer to the first question as this time of the year is “summer vacation.”  But as I say “thank you” and bid farewell to the young men and women—students and athletes who have grown, learned, challenged themselves, excelled in the classroom and on the field this past year, I realize what I walk away with is something very simple, but profound.  I get a relationship.
I would like to thank Vince Tringali the late, legendary St Ignatius football coach for teaching me this valuable truth.  He said:
What you get from coaching is a relationship. And for some it only lasts a season. Still others ask or need more of you and it extends beyond. And with some, the relationship lasts a lifetime. One that does not end, even with this life.
A relationship is a gift.  It is born out of opportunity and circumstance. It’s cultivated over time. It requires trust, care, concern, honesty, and more give/less take.

The fruit of a relationship with a student or athlete is unique.  It cannot be prescribed, only described.  Ultimately, relationships are what give life meaning.  And that simple truth should be of little surprise because God seeks a personal relationship with each and every human being.

Jesus came as one of us so we could understand what a personal relationship with God means.  He built relationships with unsuspecting people. He had them in the most basic, fundamental way--He was son, a cousin and nephew.  He was a teacher and many of his students became His disciples.  I also think He may have been a baller, but that’s for another entry. 
During this Easter season, we know the disciples felt lost and confused by His death and His reappearance over 40 days.  They were unsure how to relate to Jesus in this new way.  Jesus responded in sending an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  He said to his beloved And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20).

I met Jesus at a young age; I hope this is a relationship that lasts a lifetime.  I take comfort in knowing my relationship with Christ and with many others does not end, even with this life.  Even more, I am humbled by what I "get" from teaching and coaching.  The best part about it however is that what I "get" is also given....

Photo Credits
Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oprah's Top 5 "What I Know For Sure"

Tomorrow is my final day of teaching seniors.  It is a day of thanksgiving for all we have learned, shared and discovered this past semester. It is a time to impart wisdom and warm wishes.  As taken from the woman who hired me--teacher, prophet, activist, advocate for the poor, and now the proud owner of a signed copy of Martin Sheen's book Along the Way,  I salute Mary Ahlbach and the Top 5 of her "10 Things I know for sure."  I've added with Sports & Spirituality.
5. God loved you first.  Love God in return through loving others and our heart will be filled with joy and peace (Cura Personalis). “Do small things with great love.” (Mother Teresa)
The last thing I expected from a former NFL defensive lineman who played with the Baltimore Colts for 8-years is a coaching philosophy rooted in love.  However, Joe Ehrmann, who now serves as the defensive coordinator at the Gilman School preaches this loud and clear.

The Pultizer prize-winning book Season of Life, reveals his “man for others” philosophy it becomes reality.  He asks them:

“What is our job as coaches?”
“To love us,” the boys yelled back in unison.
“What is your job?” Joe shot back.
“To love each other,” the boys responded.
The words were spoken with the familiarity of a mantra, the commitment of an oath, the   enthusiasm of a pep rally.
This was football?
Yes it is.  Joe Ehrmann knows how to do “small things” with great love.  He makes it a priority.  In fact, it’s his philosophy. 

4. “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ).  Laugh often and much. Stop complaining. Only listen to music that feeds your soul. Marry someone who makes you laugh for all the right reasons. One smile exercises something like 120 muscles in your face.
Joy: I pulled up to AT&T Park and said to my two friends in town from Denver, CO—“welcome to the home of the 2010 World Series champions.”  Two years later it still feels so good to say that; I delight in every word. 

Indeed, certain games, athletes, teams and accomplishments have brought great joy to my life.  Enough that we can recall those moments of who/what/where/why and when years later.  And, when I do, I can’t help but have a smile on my face and joy—deep joy in my heart.

Stop Complaining: The late Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture lives by the same 
mantra.  In his presentation on Oprah he “tells on himself. “ He shares that when he was working on his doctorate, he started to complain to his mother about the taxing workload.  He was tired and mentally exhausted.  He found a different kind of sympathy from his mom. 

She said “Talk to your father; he knows just how you feel. When he was your age he was fighting the Germans (in WWII).  So much for complaining…. 

He then shows a slide of Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player. It was in his contract not to complain, even when the fans spit on him. Men and women aren’t born heroes.  They are born when opportunity and adversity meet.   Just one of the many reasons this Hall of Famer is beloved by so many.

3. Feel loved by God as if you were the only human God had ever created, both spiritually and physically.  And treat yourself, mind, body, spirit, accordingly.  “All is gift. All is grace. All is holy.” 
I hate everything about the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—it is the home of the Trojans, USC’s home turf, set in LA—all of it, except for one thing. At the entrance is the Olympic gateway that commemorates the 1984 Olympic games.  Rising 25 feet above the ground, are two bronze torsos—one male and one female athlete.

This work of art reveals that the human body is truly a gift, it is grace and it is holy.  An athlete’s body is a machine—it is primed and sculpted.  It is more than a means to an end.  It is a vehicle for grace and victory, triumph and glory.   It should be honored in every possible way.  I hate the Coliseum, but that work of art leaves me breathless.

2. Remember……the penguin is real. (story attached)
Unfortunately, I don’t have the story available.  The closest example I can give is to point you to “Field of Dreams.”  Ray and Annie Kinsella, their daughter Karin and Terrence Mann and can see the baseball players who and Ray’s brother in law, Mark cannot.  Those ghosts are real.   Believing is seeing.

1. “Hold your parents tenderly, for the world is a far, far colder place without them.” (Emily Dickinson)

I once read a study that confirmed every great athlete has at least one parent who (or parent type figure) who helped them get to where they are today.  Parents believe in us when no one else does, can or should. Case in point, even Tiger Woods’ mother was at his first official press conference after the world learned of his “transgressions.”  I don’t know how she did it, but his world at that point was already frigid.  Perhaps his mother made it less so.

The final round of the U.S Open (golf) takes places every year on Father’s Day.  In 1999, Phil Mickelson’s wife Amy was supposed to deliver their first child that very day, as he battled for the championship title. With a pager on his belt should he need to leave, Mickelson lost to the late, great Payne Stewart by one stroke.

Stewart cupped Mickelson’s face in his hands and said, “I know you’re disappointed.  But something far more important is about to happen. You’re going to become a father. Your life with never be the same.”

Perhaps it is only when we become a parent that we fully understand the love or our own parents. Regardless, they will not always be with us.  Let us cherish the time together.

Photo Credits
Stewart and Mickelson
Jackie Robinson 42
LA Coliseum
Field of Dreams
Joe Ehrmann

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bubba Watson: Honoring Three Women on Mother's Day

Noticeably absent from The Players Championship, Bubba Watson is celebrating Mother’s Day in a very special way this year.  The 2012 Masters champion announced his decision not to play at TPC Sawgrass via Twitter.  He wrote
I've decided to pull out of the Players. I need to spend more time with Caleb and Angie, plan to take at least a month off."

"The Players is one of the best weeks of the year but bonding with my son and wife is what it is all about right now."

"Sorry to disappoint fans but the Players has one of the best fields all year, tourney is more than fine without me."
Instead of competing to win a tourney with the largest purse in golf, my guess is that Bubba will be honoring three very special women. 

At first it seemed strange to me to see a 6’4” 33-year old professional athlete hugging and crying with his mom upon his victory.  Read a little bit about Bubba Watson’s life however and you’ll soon come to realize he never would have gotten there without her.

Giving thanks to his mom and dad, the article Hooray for Bubba Watson, a real champ who wears pink reveals
“My parents said if you work hard at golf and practice and you keep showing us effort, we’ll make sure you have everything you need to play golf and perform. So my mom had a paper route at — probably my 10th-grade year. It’s hard to talk about. … I don’t like to talk about it," he said, choking up. “She worked hard to support me and show me the ways that I should support my family and my kids to come, as many sacrifices as her and my dad made. It was just hard.
Molly Watson’s sacrifice and humility is inspiring.  It is one of many reasons moms deserve loving recognition today.

2.  His wife Angie. As many people know, the Watson’s adopted their son Caleb just two weeks before the Masters.  What they don’t know are the many challenges they faced to become parents.

Angie told Bubba from the start of their relationship that she would not be able to have children.  The illness and death of Watson's father, Gerry kept them from attempting to adopt until the winter of 2011–12. And one week prior to the adoption of their one-month old son, the adoption of an infant girl fell through in the final moment. 

I am sure many couples seeking to adopt are not surprised by the Watson’s plight.  I hope however they take comfort in the end result.  Two children were given life: that little girl and their little boy.  Bubba's choice to be with his wife and son on this day should be of no surprise.

3. His son’s birth mother. 
Unfortunately, I believe too many people in America today equate “choice” with abortion.  I wish that choice leaned toward the question of how best to raise a child. 
Should I keep the child myself?  Can I raise him or her?  Do I have the community and support to help me do this?  If I can’t raise the child, can the father?  Will another family be able to give my child what I cannot? 

It’s easy to say that Watsons are grateful that Caleb’s birth mother chose life.  The beauty is that countless others are as well—Molly Watson, Caleb’s future friends and even his daddy’s fans.

The three women in Bubba Watson’s life demonstrate that motherhood is not without tremendous sacrifice and selflessness. Christians can look to their example as well as that of Mary to contemplate the spirituality of motherhood. 

Mary raised her son knowing of the pain and suffering he would endure. She encouraged him at the wedding feast of Cana to exercise his divinity.  She stood at his cross as He gave his life for us.  She met with the apostles in their fear and conferred with the Holy Spirit.  And she was raised in glory, body and soul into heaven to forever be with God the father, creator and source of all life and love.

Today let us honor our heavenly and spiritual mother Mary, and the women who have given us life and loved us in the way that only a mother can. Their spirituality is worth contemplating.

Photo Credits

Watson Family
Bubba and Son

Molly and Bubba

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Oprah's What I Know For Sure Meets Sports & Spirituality

I first encountered Oprah’s “What I know for sure” while watching Elie Wiesel share his life’s story, via his memoir Night on her show. Oprah concluded her interview with the Holocaust survivor, activist, author, professor and Noble Peace Prize winner with this question. I thought it was a fitting way to conclude a powerfully memorable episode.
Oprah got the idea from the late film critic Gene Siskel who “used to ask in his celebrity interviews, 'What do you know for sure?' The first time he asked me this question, it threw me. Since then the question has become a way of taking stock of my life—hence this monthly column, in answer to Gene."

The school year is winding down and commencement is near. My colleague Mary (Ms. A), ever sage, thoughtful, determined and faithful developed her own list for her seniors. It is her gift to these young and women as they navigate their lives beyond the walls of St. Ignatius College Prep. I have integrated her ideas with my own, as they relate to "Sports and Spirituality." I encourage you to develop your own!

Ms. A’s “What I Know For Sure/Top 10 Ways to Live the Good Life”

10. Keep “nurtured” – by both good and difficult experiences in life - (like a plant needs to be watered) – hang with people who love you for who you are and who will also challenge you to be the BEST you. Leave the people who do NOT do that behind. And remember: “we can’t do this alone, folks.” I am NEVER alone.

Indeed sports provide both good and difficult experiences. From the physical demands they can place on our bodies to the natural endrophin release upon completing a great workout, so much is made possible with support from others.  A good teammate and coach will challenge you to be the BEST you as a competitor, and individual.

As much as I enjoy running solo—I clear my mind, I review my day and creative thoughts seem to percolate with ease—it is also a treat for me to run with a good friend. Sharing the miles keeps me physically and emotionally nurtured.

9. Touch the poor – regularly, locally and globally. Be a “person with/for others” - always. They are my path to God.

Many people in the world are not free to recreate. I know of some parents who work two to three jobs to pay for their child’s tuition. These may be the folks most in need of free/extra seats to a game or an hour each day to work out.

Lady Poverty has many faces. Who knew she may be nourished not only with financial resources, but with time for play, recreation, or getting lost in the drama of a good sports match?

8. First know yourself – and (then), “to thine own self be true”. That you are a person of integrity is the highest praise someone can ever say about you. Bar none.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote Sport, especially for the young, and when practiced with passion and within careful ethical boundaries, becomes a training ground for sound physical development, a school of both human and spiritual values, and a privileged means of personal growth and interaction with society. We learn about much more than our physical strengths and limitations, we learn about our character—who we truly are. It’s much easier to be true to oneself when you know who you are.

7. Learn to distinguish between the voice from God and the voice from The Evil One. They may seem similar. This is what Discernment and The Examen are all about. There is a BIG difference between deep peace of heart (which may be present in suffering) and surface happiness. Go for the former.

This is a tough one for me to draw out and build a connection. The one thought that comes to mind is unfortunately, I know of many student athletes who play sports for the wrong reasons. They feel pressure from their parents; they believe it’s the only way they will get into a certain college. They are searching for an identity.

At some point, every athlete must confront the question—Why am I doing this? Discernment and prayer will provide a worthy answer.

There are good reasons for pursing a sport and others that are less than noble. Pay attention to what your heart is telling you. Is it fun? Am I challenged in a healthy way? Is my pursuit toward my athletic goal one I am proud of? Am I testing my physical and mental limits in a way that leads to growth?

6. Pray – often and in all ways. See God speaking to you in ALL THINGS and ALL CIRCUMSTANCES OF YOUR LIFE, both the comforting and the afflicting ones.

In some circumstances, athletics provides an ideal platform for prayer. Personally, I have always found that a perfect time to pray is when I exercise. Collectively, athletes at the high school where I teach pray before every game and attend Friday Morning Liturgy together.

Looking at various teams at Mass, one might guess these athletes are fulfilling another team requirement. However, I have come to understand in reading students’ reflections and input on retreats just how much those experiences mean to them. Indeed the Eucharist provides spiritual nourishment in a way we should never underestimate.

This list includes 6-10; the next posting will include the top five!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

John Paul II and bin Laden: A Common Humanity

It’s hard to believe that one year ago today "Operation Geronimo" was executed and succeeded. Jake Tapper writes "Geronimo was the code name for the operation that sent two teams of 12 SEALS zooming by Blackhawk helicopters to a walled compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, on Sunday to kill or capture the most wanted man in the world. Anxious White House officials weren't positive that they would find bin Laden in the fortress-like complex, that he might leave while the SEALS were en route."
My seniors asked if we could spend some time talking about the historical event in class. I said “yes” because believe it or not, I have a lesson about bin Ladin that relates to our curriculum. In a broad talk I give on Sports and Spirituality, one slide in particular gets quite a reaction. It features the face of two men the world readily remembers: Blessed John Paul II beside Osama bin Laden. The title on the page reads “humanity.”
People see it and they laugh in discomfort, others raise eyebrows and give wary retorts. I let the images and the title sit for an uncomfortable minute until I ask: What could these two men possibly have in common? The answer is on the page—their humanity.

The humanity of Blessed John Paul II is inviting. It is as warm as the smile in his eyes. For me, he is an image of truth, light and love.

The humanity of Osama bin Laden however is easy to forget. In fact, it’s something I often deny. When he was killed a Navy SEAL sent back the coded message to Washington that said simply, "Geronimo-E KIA." The “E” stands for Enemy.

However, as described last year in my post “The Humanity of bin Laden,” I confronted this reality from unsuspecting information. It wasn’t when I read about his parents, his wives or his children. It wasn’t when I learned about his heritage or his education. No it’s when I read the teenage bin Laden was tall, almost gangly, and was often picked as a forward on his school soccer team for his superior ability to head the ball in. Bin Laden was an athlete. He played and may even have loved a game that unites boys and girls, men and women throughout the world. Suddenly, the enemy was human.

Blessed John Paul II was larger than life. Perhaps his devotion to God and the demands of a life of faith make him unrelatable. But it’s a well-known fact that JPII was an athlete, possibly the most athletic pontiff in history. Nate Beardsley writes
While growing up in the Polish town of Wadowice, he played goalkeeper for his local soccer team. 'Lolek the Goalie,' as his teammates called him, also took frequent dips in the Skawa River and played ice hockey on its surface once its waters froze in winter.
Karol Wojtyla, as he went by then, would hike up mountains for nearly five hours just to ski to the bottom in ten minutes. Unlike most of us, John Paul II didn't forget what was important to him or what made him happy.

He remained active, even after becoming pope in 1978. During the first summer of his papacy, the pope had a pool built at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, said biographer George Weigel. He also took breaks during the first 15 years of his pontificate to go skiing, hitting the slopes at 72 years young.
To read about bin Laden’s athletic gifts and appreciation for sports makes me uncomfortable; he has entered the familiar territory of my life. I do the same for JP II and I only love and revere him ever more. Suddenly, I am confronted with the common denominator among us—humanity. Mine is replete with limitations, failings, findings and a desire for truth.

I remember this day as a victory for freedom, I do. I do not defend a single act or choice that bin Laden made.  Humanity is capable of doing great things; too often it chooses the other. 

Photo Credits
Operation Geronimo
bin Laden and JP II
Blessed John Paul II