Over a year ago, some of the seminarians here at Mundelein were providentially put in contact with students from Trinity Evangelical Seminary, a local seminary just down the road.
For what purpose, to engage in ecumenical dialogue? To learn about each other’s creeds? Maybe to pray together?
Nope. We wanted to play basketball.
Both seminaries were immediately on board so we eagerly coordinated and organized a game at the earliest possible date. The first game we played took place at Mundelein in Fall 2016, and the home team Catholics actually lost. (I still claim this was an act of Christian charity on our part.) The game and the evening as a whole was a blast – competitive and joyful.
It was clear that the seeds of future friendships had not only been planted, but had taken root. Both seminaries were on the same page: we knew that this had to happen again.
Sure enough, it did happen again, and since that first game we have had many evenings together. There have been a number of late nights filled with hard-fought basketball and solid competition. Both teams are fairly evenly matched, which makes the camaraderie even more enjoyable, but our friendship was intended for more than just basketball.
Slowly but surely, the Lord started to make His grace known and He began to bring our two-team ecumenical basketball league into the deeper realities of our relationship. We eventually started adding dinner to the games and even some time of prayer.
I remember one evening when we prayed vespers together and then ate as a group in the refectory on campus at Mundelein. In the perfect and comedic timing of God, that evening the refectory was full of Marian statues and devotions in celebration of a particular feast of Our Lady. Needless to say, there was a lot of explaining and teaching to be done due to Catholics’ special relationship with the Blessed Mother that is not shared by our evangelical brothers.
Each encounter seemed to deepen and strengthen this relationship that God had dropped into our laps, and the 500 year anniversary of Luther’s Reformation this Halloween was an event that neither seminary could ignore. It was the perfect moment in history for us to come together and share the gift of our friendship with the larger communities of our seminaries, so we planned an entire evening together.
The night began in the classroom with an academic/theological portion, where a professor from both seminaries gave a 10-15 minute lecture on the topic, “Name one pro and one con from the Reformations.” Then we opened the floor to Q & A with questions were fielded by a panel of four professors – two Catholics and two Protestants. This quickly became a lively and enjoyable discussion about Sacraments, anthropology, division and conversion.
We moved from the classroom into the dining hall for dinner. Although it was a quick dinner, we broke bread together and at most tables the discussions that had begun in the classroom spilled over into dinner. The real conversations had started.
From dinner we moved to the gymnasium, the place where our friendship began. The basketball court served as the starting place, the surprising setting for real ecumenical connection and conversation to occur. In many ways, the whole evening was an expression of gratitude to the Lord for using an insignificant thing like basketball to make the Kingdom of God present here on earth.
With our friends from Trinity Evangelical we opened and closed the evening with a prayer. We talked about Christ and His Church. We broke bread together and competed against one another. We became friends around Christ and because of Christ. It’s awesome to think how all of this was made possible through the simple game of basketball.