Jonathan Pribila presents the gifts to Father Michael Wallack during the 66th annual CYO Opening Day Mass Nov. 3 in Yardville as Anna Primerano smiles, looking on. John Blaine photos
Jonathan Pribila presents the gifts to Father Michael Wallack during the 66th annual CYO Opening Day Mass Nov. 3 in Yardville as Anna Primerano smiles, looking on. John Blaine photos

Story by Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

Drawing comparisons between athletics and Christianity by using humility as a bond, Father Michael Wallack inspired young student-athletes during the annual CYO Opening Day Mass.

“The virtue of humility goes well in sports,” Father Wallack, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown, told the sizable crowd. “You think you have that jump shot down perfect, and someone taller than you slaps it away. That happened to me when our priest team played Trenton Catholic. A guy twice my size went up swatted it right way.”

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CYO Opening Day Mass

While that is embarrassing at the moment, Father Wallack – a member of the Diocese of Trenton’s priest sports/vocations team, dubbed The God Squad II – assured that it can only help in the long term – both on and off the court.

“It’s good to be humbled because that makes you work harder and train harder,” he said. “There are a lot of parallels between sports – whether it be basketball or cheerleading – and our faith. When we practice our faith, we are practicing Catholics, we’re practicing Christians and we’re trying to do the best we can and be as holy as we can. Same as when we step on that basketball court. We try to be the best that we can. We strive to do better.”

The 66th annual Mass, which was celebrated Nov. 3 in the Monsignor Toomey Annex in Yardville’s CYO branch, included presentations to members of the 2017-18 Scholar-Athlete Team, as well as last year’s special award winners. Grace Jakim of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton, was female athlete of the year; Zion Cruz of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, was male athlete of the year, and Romeo Laurente of OLS-St. Anthony was volunteer coach of the year.

Life Lessons

In his homily, Father Wallack stressed that though God may not become personally involved with the outcome of games, he does provide each player the grace for which to serve as his instrument – in sports as well as in life.

“Take basketball as a metaphor for our Christian life; that if we can do the best we can on the court, be a good sport and work hard, then somehow that will translate into our spiritual life, and we can do the same there,” he said. “That kind of gives us that discipline we need throughout life.”

He added that sports teach people how to win but, more importantly, how to lose.

“We can [lose] with dignity because if you put your best on the court, you never put your head down,” Father Wallack said. “You can walk away feeling good that you gave your all.”

Father Wallack also cited a personal example, explaining that as an eighth-grader, he sat the bench in soccer. In ninth grade, he became a starter.

“I was not ready to accept that, and it made me work harder and practice more, and I was able to succeed,” he said. “I think that’s a good metaphor for life. Sometimes when your best isn’t good enough, you have to learn to live with that and how to adapt and overcome.”

Love of Game, God

Father Wallack’s homily hit home with Jakim, who just completed her freshman soccer season at Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High School as a starting junior varsity defender. Jakim was the regular-season Most Valuable Player in helping OLS-St. Anthony’s basketball team to an undefeated season and playoff title. She was MVP in the CYO All-Star game and also played soccer.

The Chesterfield resident said she brings God onto the court, praying before each game. “I try to remember him before every game and try my hardest.”

Cruz, who could not attend due to an athletic commitment, was the regular-season and playoff MVP for TCA, which went undefeated in winning the playoff title. He also played in the CYO All-Star game and the diocesan tournament.

Laurente, who grew up playing for OLS-St. Anthony, served as its athletic director the past three years and as assistant athletic director two years before that.

“This means a lot,” the Robbinsville resident said. “My kids [Notre Dame athletes Bryson and Calysta] both went through OLS and played CYO sports and loved it. My son is actually a sophomore, but I stayed on another year because I loved all the coaches and kids so much.”

In his role as athletic director, Romeo noted, “You give a lot, but you get even more in return.”

Members of the Scholar-Athlete team – who played CYO sports and were on the honor role at their respective schools – were TCA’s Josephine Abraham and Anthony Aririguzoh; St. Paul of Princeton’s William Cooper and Alessandra Morabito; Christian Figueroa and Nicole Villalta of St. Raphael-Holy Angels, Hamilton; OLS-St. Anthony’s Jakim and James Primerano, and Samantha John and Tyler Kostin of St. Gregory the Great, Hamilton Square.

The father-daughter team Karl Megules on organ and Natalie Megules as cantor provided music for the Mass.