Sunday, September 2, 2012

Football and the Ministry of Presence

“Be doers of the word and not hearers only…” (James 1:22)
This morning before Mass, one of the altar servers and I were talking about the Columbus-St. Thomas Aquinas football game on Friday night.  One of the Eucharistic ministers was over hearing the conversation and she asked, “Father, you like football?”  Every one in the room began to laugh because it was like asking a child if he liked candy.  As I was laughing, I was reminded of that moment in the gospel of John when Phillip asks Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus responds, “Have I been with you so long and you still do not know me?”  Everyone turned to this kind and wonderful lady and reminded her that I had much more than a mild interest in football.
One of the worst kept secrets in the parish over the last couple of months is that last spring I was asked to be the Team Priest for the Miami Dolphins.  Everyone keeps coming up to me and saying, “Father that must be your dreams job.”  I quickly correct them, “No I am living my dream right now as I’m standing before all of you preaching and celebrating the Eucharist.” (But this other gig does come in a close second.)  As soon as I was offered this assignment, my first worry was how it would affect my ministry in the parish, but I also asked myself:  apart from being around the team that I have loved and rooted for since I was a baby, how could I possibly make a difference in this new ministry beyond just celebrating Mass for the team?  I’ll get back to this question in a moment.
In today’s readings, Jesus asks us to hear his words and understand them.  Apparently the Pharisees and Scribes were not listening very well because they always put the law and the statutes of the law above a genuine relationship with God.  Jesus calls them out on it when he calls them hypocrites that pay lip service to God but really don’t follow His commandments.  Small rituals are more important to them than bringing people closer to God, which is what their ministry should entail.  This happens to Catholics as well when we get caught up in prayers and novenas and rosaries and other rituals that are all well and good as long as they don’t alienate us from our brothers and sisters and from God.  We can repeat the same prayers every day out of a sense of obligation, but I ask you: is it bringing you closer to God or are you doing it out of obligation?  If it is simply out of obligation then it’s probably time to change up your prayer habits.  The prayers and rituals of our beautiful faith should help us deepen our relationship with God and should spur is into action out of love for our neighbor.  The Pharisees and Scribes lorded over the people with all these laws that had become nonsensical, but Jesus sums up the law in one word: love.  We must love God and love our neighbor.  Upon receiving the word of God, we must be doers of the word, as St. James tells us, and not just hearers.  We must carry that Word, Jesus Christ, in our hearts so that people can see that there is something different about us.  The disciples in last week’s gospel did not leave Jesus’ side because they were drawn to him.  People should be drawn to us as Christians in the same way.  We must radiate the presence of Jesus Christ at all times.
This brings me back to my earlier question of how I could minister to a professional football team.  When I started travelling with the team on road games (no, I was not driving the plane when we were leaving Dallas), I felt a bit out of place and asked a lot of questions of where I needed to be and what I needed to do beyond the celebration of the team Mass.  On my first road trip, I still didn’t know where I was going to watch the game until I was told:  “Coach wants you on the bench.”  There I was, a little kid now a priest standing on the sidelines with the football team he has lived and died with for 36 long, long years.  I respect our head coach a great deal, not because he offered me this generous invitation, but because as a man of deep faith he probably knows from experience the impact a priest can have on those around him.  Eventually, I slowly started to recognize why he wanted me around.  As the preseason went on, more players and staff reached out to me, more people were attending Mass, and during our second preseason home game, even one of the fans was touched by my presence on the sidelines. 
That evening just 10 days ago, I was walking out of the tunnel after halftime when I approached the wall near the west end zone to say hello to two parishioners from my first parish who I love dearly.  They came down to the railing and I had to reach up and they had to reach down to shake my hand because the first row is about 8 feet above the field.  While I was talking to them, I thin gentleman came to the railing.  He looked down at me.  He was extremely thin.  The skin on his face clung to his cheekbones.  It took a lot of energy for him to say to me over the noise of the stadium:  “Father, could you say a prayer of healing over me and bless me.  I’m terminal.”  My parishioner and I exchanged glances because we both knew immediately this moment of grace that the Good Lord had placed before us.  I smiled and nodded and extended my right hand toward him and began to pray for his healing.  When I was done, I blessed him and all of the sudden this man that at first looked to be in so much pain, looked like he was filled with an overwhelming peace as he smiled down at me.  He sat down.  I went back to the sidelines for the remainder of the game, but I could not get this man out of my head.  I don’t know if he was Catholic.  It didn’t matter.  He saw a man that represented God standing on the sidelines with his favorite football team and when I got closer to him, he asked me for prayer.  All I was doing was standing there wearing my black collar not representing a particular football team but representing my Lord and carrying His presence in my heart.  All of us are called to do the same.  We must take Christ with us wherever we go.  We must always radiate with his presence.  You don’t need a roman collar or a habit to transmit Christ’s presence.  I know so many holy lay people who are so filled with the love of Christ that people, random people, approach them in waiting rooms, at work or at school and basically just start telling them their life stories.  Presence and action are far more important than any words we can offer.  So I don’t know if this is what Coach had in mind when he asked me to be on the sidelines.  All I know is that I made a dying fan’s day brighter simply by being there with the team and praying for him.  We may not have won the football game that night, but as a team, we definitely won a soul for God.