At first glance, the basketball tournament held in the gym at Mundelein Seminary the weekend of Jan. 31 looked like any other amateur men’s league except with one difference — all of the players were discerning a call to the priesthood.
They were taking part in the annual Father Pat O’Malley Invitational that pits against each other teams from seminaries around the country. This year, 12 teams from seven states participated.
“It’s always been a wonderful time for fraternity among the seminarians,” said Father Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary, in a northwest Chicago suburb. “It’s the best the seminary tournament I’ve seen anywhere in the country.”
Two years ago, Father Barron, who attended several of the tournament games this year, renamed the event in honor of Father Pat O’Malley, who passed away in 2013. A retired Chicago priest and former columnist at the Catholic New World, the archdiocesan newspaper, he had served as a spiritual director at the seminary. Father O’Malley was an avid sports fan and used to attend all of the tournament games.
“He loved this tournament. He was always here cheering the guys on. So when he died, I thought he was an appropriate guy to name it for,” Barron said.
The tournament builds fraternity among the seminarians.
“It brings us together. Look at all of the guys here,” he said. “They’re fighting their way on the court and then they all come together in their common love for the priesthood,” around Mass Sunday morning.
This is the 15th year for the tournament. The Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, also holds a basketball tournament and other seminaries hold tournaments for sports like golf and soccer.
Some teams were pretty organized, like the team from Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, whose members sported matching warm-up suits along with traditional basketball uniforms. Mount St. Mary’s also had a seminarian on their roster who played Division I basketball.
Others, like the team from St. Meinrad Abbey Seminary in Indiana wore simple matching tank tops with their own shorts and undershirts.
Since sports are extracurricular activities at seminaries and not all of the teams practice much before the tournament, skill levels vary.
There’s a spiritual and social aspect to the tournament as well, with the teams kneeling in prayer together after each game, celebrating Mass together and having a pizza social and screening of the movie “Hoosiers,” the 1986 classic about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship.
It was an enthusiastic environment and loud cheers echoed through the gym during games. When they weren’t playing, teams cheered on those who were. Some teams even brought their mascots and others dressed up as gorillas and waved signs. A few Mundelein seminarians made large cutouts of Father Barron’s head and that of Mark McGeary, a second year pre-theology student who was this year’s tournament director and team coach.
Each year, a seminarian in his second year of pre-theology serves as director. A first-year theology student serves under him and takes the tournament over the following year. The Knights of Columbus provide the financial support for Mundelein to host the tournament and the seminaries pay their own way there.
This year, Mother Nature even made an appearance. A blizzard rolled in Saturday night and on Sunday before the championship games. The 19 inches of snow caused the gym roof to leak.
To keep anyone from slipping on the gym floor it was decided the winner would be determined through a three-point shootout. Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis won the tournament with Mount St. Mary Seminary and Mundelein taking second and third, respectively.
The blizzard also kept some of the teams at the seminary one more day because their flights out were canceled.
Eight dads and 20 boys from the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, even made the tournament the focus of their father-son trip that weekend after seeing the event on Barron’s “Heroic Priesthood” DVD.
This was Quoc-viet Nguyen’s third year playing in the tournament for Mundelein Seminary.
“I think it’s the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Nguyen, who is studying for the Archdiocese of Kansas City.
The whole event is an opportunity to strengthen bonds between those discerning priesthood, he said.
“For men, we connect by working together, whether it’s building a house or playing sports,” he said. “I’ve learned throughout my life that playing sports is a good way to get to know each other.”
The tournament also offers an opportunity “to see the universal church get together and play basketball,” he said.
For first-year seminarian Andrew Raffanti from St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, Louisiana, training for the tournament was the first time he played basketball on a team.
“It is a great way to just come out here and have fun and stay in shape,” said Raffanti, who is studying for the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee. But it also helps others view priesthood differently.
“A lot of times people don’t really see seminarians or priests as just normal people,” he said. “And people come out here (to the tournament) and they can see that.”