“Prayer, Fraternity and Competition” | Father O’Malley Invitational Basketball Tournament January 2020

Posted on August 3, 2020

Written by Father Kevin Ripley, Diocese of Green Bay, Class of 2020
Photos by Deacon Randy Belice

On Jan. 17, around 240 additional seminarians and priests arrived on campus to compete in the 20th annual Father O’Malley Invitational Basketball Tournament hosted by Mundelein Seminary, making it quite possibly the largest gathering of seminarians in the country. However, such a large event had modest beginnings.

For years, Mundelein seminarians had been competing in the basketball tournament at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. That tournament, going into its 40th year this February, had grown to the point that they could not accommodate all teams that wanted to come. In the fall of 2000, when the basketball team at Mundelein learned that they did not make the list for the next tournament, they needed to act quickly.

Father Dennis Spies, Mundelein Class of 2002, priest of the Diocese of Joliet and current faculty member, was one of four seminarians at the time who put their heads together to find a solution.

“There was a desire that we need to be leading,” Father Spies said. “If other seminaries are hosting tournaments, then we need to not just be followers.” His classmate, Father Burke Masters, also of Joliet, remembers that year as well. “Father Dennis and I talked with then-rector Father Canary, and we all thought, ‘Well, let’s start our own.’”

The two others involved in the leadership were Father Richard Rocha of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Father Claude Burns of the Diocese of Evansville. Current rector Father John Kartje was also a member of their class. Looking back, he sees that the seminary was ready for it, and that the only reason it had not happened up until that point was because nobody put it together. “‘See if it sticks’ was the mind-set that first year,” he said. “It just seemed to make sense.”

“The Josephinum tournament was really for the East,” explained Msgr. John Canary, who began as rector in 1995 and currently directs the Joseph and Mary Retreat House. “So we extended the invitation to the West.”

“We also figured we could host a bigger tournament,” Father Spies remarked. Eight teams competed in the tournament’s first year. When the Mundelein tournament did grow bigger, they were able to use the nearby Santa Maria del Popolo Grade School’s gym for more space. Mundelein’s own facilities, however, were in poor repair. “The ceiling leaked, and the floor was original from 1933,” Father Spies explained. “There were dead spots that we had to go around during practice. You would bounce the ball, and it would not bounce back. We definitely would have had a home court advantage if we kept it the same.”

All-Around Support

Replacing the floor and repairing the roof naturally involved seeking funds, something Monsignor Canary was able to do as rector. Kathy Walgreen gave him the first donation, and he found great financial support from the Knights of Columbus through Ron Ziemba, who had earlier been the State Deputy from 1991-1993. The Knights would later donate a new scoreboard for the gym and support the event with $10,000 each year. “Whatever they wanted, we were there for them,” Ziemba said.

Ziemba and his wife Diane have been present to see the tournament since 2002. “It’s really hard to imagine this place without them,” Father Kartje said. “To me, that’s an amazing witness.” The couple serve as vocations committee co-chairs for the Illinois State Council of the Knights, having started a state raffle in 1994 that pays for the basketball tournament funding and other vocations ministry. They received the Christo Gloria Award from the seminary in February 2019 for their years of work supporting vocations to the priesthood. Faculty really supported the tournament early on as well, many coming to games even when Mundelein was not playing. “Even (Father) Pat Boyle would make an appearance, to the usual applause and joy of the seminarians,” Monsignor Canary said. “This was one of those uplifting winter events, a boost for the winter blues.”

A Place of Fraternity

The tournament’s founding group wanted to create an atmosphere of hospitality. Father Spies, who headed the Hospitality Committee, would ask Mundelein seminarians to serve as hosts, each for a particular team. The host would meet and greet them, helping them around campus throughout the weekend. While the idea of having hosts has changed over the years, several aspects have been staples of the tournament from the beginning, including a live pep band, a Friday night pizza party, and a Saturday night ice cream social.

“The goal was fraternity and to meet as many people as possible,” Father Spies said. “We thought it was awesome that guys came from other seminaries and dioceses around the country.” Being Christian men studying for the priesthood, it was also very important for Father Spies and company to incorporate prayer. “We were intentional about having Mass together on Sunday morning with everyone who was there.”

Developing Parish Skills the Father O’Malley Way

From the get-go, the responsibility of planning and implementing the tournament was taken on by the seminarians. “That was really a gift of the Mundelein seminarians,” Monsignor Canary said.

Deacon Robert Cotta of the Diocese of Atlanta coordinated the 2015 tournament, which saw a massive 20-inch snowstorm cause water to drip from the ceiling and keep many teams at Mundelein to watch the Super Bowl. Yet, even with such challenges, he said, “Heading up the basketball tournament was an important part of my priestly formation,” which has been a theme for him throughout the years. Deacon Cotta notes how he had to navigate his daily responsibilities at the seminary while also planning such a large event. The coordinator also establishes student teams and works with campus staff to organize food, lodging, first aid and liturgies. Programs and T-shirts must be designed and printed, and referees have to be hired. “It gave me a small glimpse into the life of a pastor, who has to wear a bunch of hats at the same time,” said Deacon Cotta.

Father Kartje also keyed in on this benefit of developing leadership skills for the parish. “As a pastor, you’re going to need to take that initiative,” he said. However, he stressed the importance of the seminarian community not allowing the event to get so big as to let their prayer or studies suffer. “Priests fall into this trap as well, whether it’s the parish picnic or the construction of a new church,” he said.

Along the same lines, “because of the size of the thing,” Monsignor Canary suggested that a key skill men learn over the years has been delegation. “A pastor has to know how to do delegation, and then trust that those people do it.”

Father Kartje said athletics itself is also a great way for men to develop in their human formation, something he really came to appreciate while observing football practices during his assignment as chaplain of Northwestern University’s Sheil Catholic Center. “I just think that Church folks could learn an awful lot from athletes,” he said. “Just the value of getting up and doing the unglamorous stuff, so that when you make bigger decisions, a lot of that stuff just becomes second nature.” He likens such training both to the discipline of praying early in the morning and to the generous sharing of one’s time as a priest, especially when some days demand minor stretches on one’s comfort. “You don’t have the luxury of sitting in the pew at a parish Mass or to decide if you’re a parish priest or a seminarian,” he said. “You’re out there all the time.

Father Masters concurred, adding, “A lot of those things you learn from sports, such as teamwork and discipline, are so applicable to the spiritual life and to the life of a priest.”

One great champion of generosity and of forming parish priests was Father Pat O’Malley, after whom the tournament is now named following his death in 2013. Father O’Malley was ordained by Cardinal Stritch in 1957 for the Archdiocese of Chicago and acted as a school superintendent, had four parish assignments and served as vicar for priests before opting to retire to Mundelein Seminary in 1997, where he served as teacher, spiritual director and cam priest (cam: a group of seminarians of various years and dioceses who live on the same residence hallway).

Father Kartje, who had a unique relationship with Father O’Malley in regular spiritual direction, said, “He was somebody really invested in the Church, a good priest, holy priest and very social-justice oriented.”

“He was my cam priest,” Father Spies noted. “He had a ton of experience he’d share with us. We’d ask him all kinds of questions.”

“When he retired, he could have just taken it easy,” Father Kartje added. “But he came back here full-time with a full load to the day he died. I’m very pleased that the tournament is named after him.”

Building the Kingdom in 2020

This year’s student coordinator saw this 20th tournament as an opportunity to take a fresh, spiritual look at its purpose and structure. Robert Lamorena, in his second year of Pre-Theology for the Diocese of San Jose, has a background in project management.

“I was not called here to continue my career, but to try to be a priest, so what this event does is it gives me the opportunity to use that project management skill-set for God. Instead of event planning, it’s ministry,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you are moving from an event model to a ministry model, this ministry has to be centered in the Gospel.”

With much prayer and questioning, Lamorena and his team came to a clear vision going forward. “This fall, it became obvious that the theme God wanted to emphasize with this event was community,” he said. “Our 2020 vision was this idea of showcasing what community looks like here at Mundelein, so that when they returned to their seminaries, they could share this Gospel message of community.”

Lamorena believes the tournament could really be used to build up the seminarians’ spiritually.

“The Gospel mission is to build the kingdom, not to sustain the kingdom. As you lead people to volunteer for different things, you allow God to feed them spiritually so that they feel motivated to do God’s work.”

This is also important to Father Kartje, who said, “I always appreciate when the leadership for the particular year sees the larger perspective.”

In order to do that, Lamorena and his team have found ways to schedule the weekend in a new way that will make it more conducive to encounters between seminarians and God. This is really where he saw the Holy Spirit working through the support of his brother seminarians, he explained. For this tournament, the games were arranged so that every team will be able to attend Mass together on both Saturday and Sunday, instead of some teams praying privately.

“We want 400 seminarians to come together and pray,” he said. “There’s something about the Holy Spirit allowing us to come together, in a spirit of competition, sure, but to recognize that we all serve our Lord.”

In addition, there was adoration offered from the end of Saturday Mass until the beginning of Sunday Mass.

“Seminarians were able to pray for the priesthood, for the tournament and, of course, for no injuries,” Lamorena said.

Beyond the athletic and spiritual benefits of the tournament, it also provides encouragement for current and future vocations. Solidarity is one factor.

“We can talk about different seminaries as if they’re different, but no, the seminarians and priests who work with them — we’re all on the same mission,” Father Kartje said.

“It’s good for them to meet other seminarians and realize they’re normal,” Father Spies said. “It unifies the Church. They’re regular guys just trying to figure out how to be priests.”

Father Masters, who served as vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet from 2006 to 2018, found the tournament to be great for recruitment.

“We’ve had dads bring their sons, and it was a great thing for both of them to see these normal guys playing a sport,” Father Masters said. “It gives a new vision of priests for the laity,” he said. “To see guys having fun while still loving Jesus opens up the way to think, ‘Wow, maybe I could be here’.”

In recent years, the tournament has had an even wider reach, with the addition of livestreaming. During the 2019 tournament, it racked up 7,178 views, displaying the growing interest in the event. St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, set up a large screen for the community to follow their team, and the Mundelein seminarians on pilgrimage in the Holy Land also tuned in to the tournament. The competition has been high, with various teams taking home the trophy. “Two years ago, we were against St. Vincent de Paul in the finals,” Father Kartje said. “I know Msgr. Toups well, so we made a bet. He bet us a crate of oranges, and we bet him a Lou Malnati’s pizza,” he recalled with a smile. “We lost, so I had to send him the pizza.”

See highlights from the January 2020 tournament at www.usml.edu/20th.

This article originally ran in the Winter-Spring 2020 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.