As a kid growing up in New York City, I attended a Catholic grammar school named Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. I served as an altar boy and was fluent in the Latin Mass, attended family mass on Sundays, and played CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) sports, ultimately intertwining my faith and sports. At the time, I realized the struggles of both which meant working through my doubts, creating new skills to achieve another level of my faith life, and playing and being open to listening to my coaches and the sermons of the parish priest. Admittedly, the complications of both sport and faith became intensified at the high school and college levels.
Playing Little League and PAL (Police Athletic League) baseball, Boys Club Basketball, Pop Warner football, and neighborhood soccer gave me discipline and pride in my team especially while wearing the uniform. In college, I continued in sports playing NCAA Lacrosse and Soccer and was also an ocean lifeguard.
After college, I taught in public and private schools, became an administrator, and coached at St. John’s University. I continued to fuel my athletic desires by running and training for marathons and completed four in NYC. Unfortunately, injuries and four major knee surgeries left me grounded with a lot time on my hands.
During this time, my religion and faith took another turn. Vatican II took effect and I lost what was taught to me as a child. I had trouble relating and learning the new concepts of the Mass and personal interaction seemed lost to me. I realized that my faith would require a new commitment and understanding in order for me to develop an adult relationship with Jesus Christ, Son of Man.
My previous intense commitment to sports helped me understand the courage that would be needed to get my faith back on track. It was at this time, 30 years ago, that I began working at Loyola School, a Jesuit school where formation towards my new life in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In 1995, I participated in a pilgrimage with Mr. Tramontozzi and Loyola students to Italy. We visited the Basilica of St. Francis Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua, and the Abbey of Montecassino. We visited the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls founded by Emperor Constantine where The Holy Door is located. The apse mosaic there shows Christ flanked by the Apostles, Peter, Paul, and Andrew, and St. Luke. I left Saint Paul’s realizing his strong commitment to his belief in Christ and that his teachings truly were from God. The trip stirred my awareness of my religion and the meanings of tradition, ritual, and places and my curiosity began to take off!
We attended Easter Mass on the steps of the Vatican where Pope John Paul II said the mass in Latin, something I had not heard since my days as an altar boy. We had prime seats behind the Cardinals, so close to the Pope that when he came over to bless the cross with holy water, we were sprayed!
On the plane ride home, my thoughts were ablaze and I thought about the interesting ways we explored the history of the Church by visually and spiritually witnessing the sites that impacted Christianity. After arriving home, Fr. Prior asked to meet with me to discuss what I learned on the trip. He listened intently and advised me to attend mass at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola which I did.
Another pilgrimage opportunity presented itself and a friend and I visited a Hindu Ashram in Taos, New Mexico where the Dalai Lama was to speak on faith and God. My friend had recently converted to Buddhism and we were both open to learning what was going on in the Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in Northern New Mexico. What struck me most was a common thread between our religions – a commitment during life’s trials and tribulations to believe and to overcome adversity.
Some years later, Fr. Katsouros took the Loyola faculty on a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of St. Ignatius. I thought it would be interesting to visit the place where all of our Loyola School traditions started over 500 years ago. We flew into Madrid and then boarded a flight to Bilbao. On the bus ride to the town of Azpeitia, the bus driver got lost which I found fitting as I felt the same way!
Located in the Basque country in Northern Spain, Azpeitia is a sleepy town where Ignatius was born and also the site of his castle home. Inigo, as he was called, was no boring child. As a young man and soldier, he was wounded at the Battle at Pamplona. We visited the room where he convalesced from a devastating leg wound and read books on the Saints. As his spirituality developed, he left his wealth behind and gave his fighting sword to the monks in a beautiful basilica, Montserrat Abbey, which houses the Black Madonna. We learned about his early turbulent beginnings and traveled on to Xavier’s home, Manresa, where Ignatius took refuge from the world and wrote the “Spiritual Exercises.” Our trip ended with visits to Barcelona and, finally, Rome where Ignatius established the Society of Jesus.
Flying back to New York, I reflected on St. Ignatius’ courage, commitment, and passion. Loyola School now felt like a living place of Christ-like passions to me filled with this man’s unflappable desire to create atmospheres of learning and faith. I was spiritually moved and had an intense desire to be like Christ. I found myself attending mass at Easter and Christmas and even saints’ feast days.
A few years after the Ignatian pilgrimage, a friend and I flew to Istanbul and hopped on a boat to Selcuk, near Izmir in western Turkey to visit the port city of Ephesus. St. John established the first Christian community in Ephesus and it is believed that he brought Mary, the Mother of God, to live with him here after Jesus died, fulfilling Jesus’ words from the cross, “here is your Mother.”
I was amazed by how this remote site had such a powerful effect on so many pilgrims making their way up the hill to visit. I brought back water from the well which is said to have healing powers. While in Istanbul, I also visited the Blue Mosque. Again, I was struck by strong commitments and how this affects one’s beliefs by building on experiences of seeing and listening.
In my ongoing journey to rediscover my faith, I decided to visit the Holy Land last summer to walk in the dust of Jesus Christ. I landed in Tel Aviv and met my Israeli friends. We immediately drove to Cana where Jesus turned water to wine. Big jugs located outside of the chapel adjacent to the big church were symbols of the miracle. We also visited Galilee and East Jerusalem. As I walked along Nablus Road, I saw various mosques and churches came to the Damascus Gate where there were three Israeli checkpoints. Armed soldiers, both men and women, advised that it might be dangerous for me there. One decided to walk me to the Via Dolarosa where he said I would be safer and pointed out the path where Jesus walked to his crucifixion at Golgotha.
I came across tunnels where Jews were praying aloud and, finally, to the massive Wailing Wall, or Western Wall. I heard prayers in many languages being shouted out loud to the heavens. After a long day, I decided to jump into a cab back to where I was staying. The next day I was out bright and early as the weather is extremely hot in Jerusalem in the summer. My friends picked me up and we headed to Bethlehem. We traveled six miles on a nice highway, again with checkpoints that had high walls separating the West Bank from Israel. We arrived at the Church of Nativity and entered the Humble Door, a small door for such a large church where, below in a cave, the Christ Child was born. We stood atop the stone stairs leading down to where a group of people from Haiti were singing praises to Christ in French. A bearded Orthodox priest tried to move the group along as I knelt down and touched the star where Jesus’ manger sat. On our way out I looked out onto the hills where the shepherds tended their flock that special night and the angels sang of the birth of Christ.
We proceeded on to Golgotha where Christ was crucified and visited a very ornate church, where incense filled the air. I put my hand into a hole under the altar, the very site where Jesus’ cross was put into the ground. I walked down tiny steps to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ was buried and was raised on the third day! Sunlight beamed through the hole in the center of its ornate ceiling. Where I entered a small candle lit the space with light that also touched the more than 2,000-year-old rock slab where Jesus lay. Speechless and in awe, I stood there and prayed until the Orthodox priest asked me to move. It was not uncommon to see people weeping quietly. Leaving the grounds, I understood why as my own faith in Christ was being pushed to another level.
The next morning, I entered the Damascus Gate and came upon a Christian shop where I walked into to buy some rosary beads. The man inside was an elderly friendly guy who introduced himself as Mike. He offered me some tea as we struck up conversation. Mike asked me where I was going and when I said the Mount of Olives, he said he would drive me there, just like that. He explained that he had Israeli car plates and called his son to come over and mind the shop while we were gone. On our drive, Mike gave me an historical overview of Jerusalem. Although Mike was Muslim, he knew a great deal about Christianity. He drove us north along the Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and pointed out the upper room where Christ had the Last Supper. I pictured in my mind a long wooden table with Jesus surrounded by the apostles. I could not believe where I was! We left the Upper Room and proceeded to Mount Olive where we visited the Garden at Gethsemane where Christ prayed in agony and was later betrayed by Judas.
Mike told me to go into the Garden, while he waited in his car. I sat on a bench and thought of Christ praying here and being arrested and was again in awe. I sat there for 20 minutes and a tremendous quiet came over me, as I gazed at the ancient olive trees. I went inside a beautiful church where I saw a big mosaic on both sides of an elaborate altar that depicted Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss as soldiers held torches.
We proceeded on to Jericho and the Jordan River. I stepped into it and collected water to bring home. On the way back we passed bedouins with their herds of goats and sheep and stopped at the Mount of Temptation off of the road to Jerusalem. I marveled at the first star above the Mount as Mike reminded me that we were on the road of the “Good Samaritan.” I thought to myself that this man was a walking story teller of my faith – and he was Muslim!
My curiosity of how different people at different times in the world carried on their faith through various types of actions developed as my sport skills did throughout my playing days. This summer, I plan to visit Malta where Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Jerusalem and was greeted warmly by the Maltese people. I will visit the chapel cave where he is remembered. I will then travel to Greece to visit Delphi where Paul gave the famous Areopagus Sermon.
The understanding of my faith through physical evidence and the stories behind it is, for me, the same as in sports. Developing skills and strategies to perform helped me immensely in my journey both spiritually and physically. Working at my doubts and questioning things in both sports and in my faith life testify to the work I’ve done finding myself within the realm of the physical world and its Creator. Moments of quiet reflection have also helped me to overcome obstacles. Playing sports is feeling the physical and going on pilgrimages helps me witness and feel the presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ.