Notre Dame High School coach Jack McKenna discusses ideas on how to get athletes involved in prayer before games.

Notre Dame High School coach Jack McKenna discusses ideas on how to get athletes involved in prayer before games.

By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent

From Catholic high schools spanning the Diocese of Trenton, teen leaders of Catholic Athletes for Christ assembled Sept. 18 in the Chancery, Lawrenceville, to celebrate their common ground – faith, and athletics.

Photo Gallery: Catholic Athletes for Christ gathering 2018

“This is our sixth year, and it’s going stronger than ever,” Dr. Margaret Boland, diocesan associate superintendent of Catholic schools, told the athletes and their coaches. “We are the strongest CAC organization in the U.S., so you can be proud of what you do. We are living the faith, and that’s what we’re about.”

Catholic Athletes for Christ, the nationwide organization that brings the love of sports and the Church under one roof, was brought to the Diocese in 2013 by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., after he was instrumental in bringing it to the Catholic University of America, Washington, during his presidency. The diocesan representatives and athlete leaders of CAC gather annually to discuss the progress of the program.

Boland has called the CAC program in the Trenton Diocese an outstanding model for the implementation of evangelization and a national model for any Diocese to encourage in their respective secondary schools. The ultimate purpose, she noted, is to “guide each person to recognize and embrace their personal relationship with Jesus.”

“Thank you, from Bishop O’Connell,” said Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education, who addressed the Cathletes in the Bishop’s stead. “He depends on you. He wanted me to tell you today how appreciative he is of your witness, because what you’re doing is what the Church needs today. It needs you to be the bearers of the torch of Jesus Christ – you need to be the taker of the light; you need to be the bringer of the Spirit.”

JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, also spoke to the students about their role as peer leaders, and why they were chosen to represent their schools.

 “[It’s] because of the leadership that was recognized … What do you bring to the field, to the court? … You bring your best self each day, not only to the [sport], but also to life. Part of CAC is a compliment to that – because you take the time to pause, to recognize God in your lives.

“It’s also important that as you make choices, you take responsibility,” she continued. “People look up to you. They see you as a role model. Take responsibility for your actions throughout life. Be the love we need in this world.”

 Team Players

The annual meeting included time for small table discussions centering around four questions: How can we as high school students empower and sustain the core reasons for the formation of the CAC?; How has the infusion of the values, ideas and traditions of the Catholic faith as a core component of the Cathlete program impacted membership and participation?; When you graduate, what aspects of CAC will you take with you?; and As a young person growing into adulthood, what do you need to remain faithful to the core components of CAC in your future?

Students also talked about how their attitudes on the playing field and on social media could be a positive influence. When asked whether they could detect a difference in the secular sports teams they played, the response was unanimous: behaviors and social media posts were much more affirmative and supportive among Catholic teams.

Chazz Jones, soccer player and junior in Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, was attending the meeting for the first time. He said he joined CAC because “I was interested in seeing what it was all about and what the other Catholic athletes were like.”

Ryane Alvarez, TCA senior, plays soccer and softball; after two years in CAC, she said, “the whole atmosphere is like family; you get to know each other and grow closer.”

Notre Dame High school junior Joe Tyger, who plays football, is starting his third year in CAC. He said he joined initially because “I just had strong faith, and I like football – it’s a good mix of both. … I like the group meetings, getting together and talking about our faith – like football, it’s a brotherhood.”

Third-year member Bridget Carrezola, a senior at the same Lawrenceville school who runs cross country and track, attributed her joining CAC to coach Jack McKenna. “All the good things he does for the teams really bring you together through faith; we have meetings throughout the year, and we also participate in service like food and toy drives.”

As members of CAC, Boland noted, every student participates in prayer before and after athlete practice as well as a monthly meeting. Along with this is the concept of Living Charity that all members are called to fulfill, which encourages each student to commit themselves to service in the broader community.

Actively Involved

Copious notes went along with the Cathletes as they walked to nearby Notre Dame High School to pray a decade of the Rosary together, followed by lunch and a brief presentation by Katie Cerni, the Diocese’s social media coordinator, and Jerry Wutkowski, ministry assistant in the diocesan

Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.

A detailed panel discussion ensued, headed by four CAC adult faith leaders: Father Jason Parzynski, campus minister in Notre Dame High School; Dan Duddy, coach in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, and representative of the national CAC; Jayne Shalkowski, counselor and cheerleading coach at St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; and Robert Abatemarco, principal and coach for Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank. They addressed the suggestions generated by the Cathletes’ brainstorming, as well as reviewed the core values of CAC and how they are already applied.

Boland said the panel discussion was inspired by the Year of Youth decreed June 12 by Bishop O’Connell, which is aimed at inspiring young Catholics in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties to own their own faith and act upon it.

Among the ideas for evangelization among teammates was simply inviting others to participate in a quick prayer or Scripture reading before a game – something many Cathletes are already doing, finding it helps them both on and off the field.

“It might grow,” Shalkowski said. “If you step outside your comfort zone, others might do the same.”

Abatemarco agreed. “Sometimes it’s a simple invitation,” he said. “They’re waiting for you to invite them.”

Coach McKenna mentioned the effectiveness of his football team’s Bible study – something that came about after team members approached him with the idea.

“God has given you a platform to use,” McKenna said, referring to the students’ ability to reach their peers because of their athletic performance. “Find your platform, and use it … Spread the word. We know it’s tough, with peer pressure. But just be who you are, be real. Go out and speak the truth.”

Father Zeis said that the students have even more influence among their peers than adults in the Church.

“They really believe you, when you stand up for the faith, when you speak courageously about Jesus Christ,” he emphasized. “When you share the Gospel in the way you live with one another, it rubs off. It’s contagious in a great way. I thank you, and the Bishop thanks you for that; you really are a marvelous light in the Diocese of Trenton, something we so value and so appreciate.”

Looking Ahead

Sharing her thoughts on the gathering and the school year just underway, Boland said, “We want to hear more from the students, and we set up the panel so they can give feedback. This is just one way of connecting them in focusing on how do we stretch [the athletic portion] of our lives to include charity, faith and prayer.”

Another new initiative in the works is the revision of the prayer book the athletes use when they meet. Boland said the aim is to include prayers written by the students.

“We are hoping that the kids will write prayers and they will give us their prayers to include in the book. … After so many years as a teacher, I know that you need to hear the voice of the students, not just the leaders in this program. The hope is that their voices will be heard – that it’s important to connect to the Church – that we want their opinion.”

“We don’t want them to be without faith in their hearts,” she continued. “We want to give the kids that hinge, that strength. That’s what’s important. That’s what will carry them through.”

Indeed, Catholic Athletes for Christ has become such a rallying point for faith and good sportsmanship that she envisions down the line “moving the program into the middle schools. The hope is to do that.”

Correspondent Lois Rogers contributed to this report.