Basketball helps priests teach New Jersey students about vocations

IMAGE: CNS photo/John Blaine

By Mary Stadnyk and Rich Fisher

HOLMDEL, N.J. (CNS) — Students at
St. John Vianney High School expected their recent pep rally to be fun,
colorful and filled with good-natured competition.

But they were completely taken
by surprise during the pre-Christmas celebration when six priests ran out onto
the basketball court for a friendly exhibition game — all with the intention
to teach about vocations.

The basketball game was a way
“to reach out and let them know that priests are approachable and they, too,
can enjoy hobbies,” said Father
Michael Wallack, priest secretary to Bishop David M. O’Connell of Trenton and diocesan director of

He said he hoped that through
the game, the message was conveyed that priests “don’t always just stay in the
church all week, waiting for Sunday.”

“Most people don’t really know
what a priest does during the week besides writing a homily,” said Father
Wallack, who was joined on the court by Father John Michael Patilla, parochial vicar of St.
Benedict Parish, in Holmdel and chaplain in St. John Vianney High
School; Father Augusto Gamalo,
parochial vicar of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Hamilton Square; Father Thomas Vala and Father Gregg Abadilla, pastor and parochial
vicar, respectively, of St. Clement Parish in Matawan; and Father Dean Gaudio, pastor of St.
Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Avon-by-the-Sea.

didn’t take long before the game between the St. John Vianney Lancers and the
priests, who called themselves God Squad II, went from being a friendly game of
hoops to a competitive match that resulted in a 4-2 win for high schoolers. The
diocesan communications staff produced a video of the game.

Also evident in the video and in
comments following the game was the strong camaraderie between the priests as
they reflected on how basketball could serve as an effective vocation recruitment

“Sports is a good avenue to
promote vocations and meet kids where they are at,” Father Patilla said.

Afteward, Father Vala, who
smiled when he said he lasted longer than he thought he would in the game,
thought the “kids got a kick out of it.”

The priests enjoyed sharing a
bit on how they prepared for the game with Father Gamalo saying “there’s some
prayers involved,” especially because the priests did not have the opportunity
to practice beforehand. Listening to upbeat music and watching games on
television helped to motivate Father Gamalo and Father Abadilla give their all
to the game.

Gaudio smiled as he shared how he thought the goal of the game was to show
students that priests “are not all 70 years old” and can be everyday men who
like sports.

“I would like to think there was
a young man in today’s crowd who might be thinking of a vocation to the
priesthood, and our appearance at the game got him thinking about it even
more,” said Father Gaudio, who used to play basketball for Bound Brook High
School and on an intramural team in St. Bonaventure University.

Father Vala said he hoped that
through activities such as sports or music, the students can get to know a
priest and share a friendship with him. And through that friendship, he hoped
students would feel comfortable approaching a priest when thinking about the
priesthood as a vocation.

“The priesthood is a vocation to
serve God, and in doing so, you touch the lives of others when you reach out to
them and make a positive difference in their lives,” he said.

“When I embraced my Catholic
faith in a serious and responsible way, I found meaning and purpose,” he added,
saying that being a priest has “brought me the joy and happiness that I sought
in my life.”

After the game, James Guilbert,
a senior and varsity basketball player at the high school, said he thought the
game allowed the St. John Vianney community to “see a different aspect of
priests lives and that they live normal lives, too.”

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Editor’s Note: A video of the
game is available online at

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Stadnyk is associate editor of and
Fisher writes for The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

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