Student-athletes in Catholic high schools around the Diocese traded their typical workout for that of another kind the morning of Dec. 3 – one that strengthened their spiritual muscles.

More than 80 students, along with coaches and other school staff, joined Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and staff from the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools for an online gathering of the annual Catholic Athletes for Christ Leadership Day. During the event, they discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on their ability to play sports and lessons they have learned. There was also a question-and-answer session with the Bishop.

“How can we grow our faith while at home?” asked Arianna Simon of St. Rose High School, Belmar.

“No matter where you are, or who you’re with, you can always pray,” Bishop O’Connell advised. “Practice talking to God like you would talk to a friend,” said Bishop O’Connell, who focused his remarks on the importance of prayer and leaning on faith during challenging times.

Catholic Athletes for Christ, a nationwide organization of which Bishop O’Connell sits on the episcopal board, aims to encourage young people to make the connection between their Catholic faith and athletics. Among the high schools represented during the virtual meeting were Donovan Catholic, Toms River; Notre Dame, Lawrenceville; St. John Vianney, Holmdel; Red Bank Catholic, Red Bank; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, and St. Rose. Among those in attendance were Father Jason Parzynski, CAC chaplain and diocesan vocations director, and John McKenna, diocesan CAC moderator.  

The day’s keynote speaker, Father Bryan Page, pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, Jersey City, and former chaplain of the Aquinas Institute, Princeton, reflected on the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8), saying, “The Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Father Page encouraged participants to use their talents to glorify Christ, rather than use Christ to glorify their actions.

“How will you be known after sports are not in your life?” he asked the CAC members.

During small group discussions, the students were asked to address three questions: “How have you stayed involved in sports once schools and sports were stopped for the pandemic, and how does that translate to your faith?”; “How has your school kept its Catholic identity during the pandemic?” and “What lessons have you learned from sports that has helped you be able to walk humbly with God?”

Robert Lamastra, who plays football and baseball for Red Band Catholic High School, addressed the first question, saying, “The workouts kept us in shape – they were difficult but while doing them on my own, I knew that my whole team was doing them along with me. It gave me motivation to keep going.”

He added that during the past months of social distancing and separation, he felt that the workouts were a part of keeping the team strong.

St. John Vianney’s Lyndsay Truchan, in addressing the second question, spoke of how her school made a concerted effort to engage the student virtually. “We were able to watch livestream Masses and participate in online retreats,” she said, expressing how important that was to her and the other students.

Joe Meidling from Notre Dame High School answered how he can relate his faith to training for matches and games. “We trust in the process of working out and practicing for our games. We can work on our relationship with God in that same way.”

Vincent de Paul Schmidt, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, said he was inspired by the students, explaining that he wished a support system such as CAC had been available when he was a high school or college athlete.

Catholic Athletes for Christ, he explained, “gives students a sense of family and belonging above their sport, but linked to their faith.”

When McKenna, who also coaches at Notre Dame High School, asked the participants how the day had influenced them, the students agreed they were comforted to know they are not alone in their feelings. They were also grateful to be able to lean on each other during difficult times.

“It gave us an opportunity to see each other and be there for each other,” said Brennan Pinto of Notre Dame High School.

Daniel O’Connell, CAC liaison and associate director of Curriculum and Instruction for the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, reminded the young men and women, “Other students look to you and watch what you do. Use your leadership to amplify Christ’s message to them.”