Croatian Rugby Coach Returns to New Zealand to Become Catholic Priest
Father Antony Sumich, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, explains how international adventures drew him more deeply into the Church.
The homecoming for Father Antony Sumich took many years and many miles, but he is now back in his home country of New Zealand.
His athletic career included skiing (as an instructor in the Austrian Alps), cricket (as a Croatian national team player) and rugby (as a club player in New Zealand and the Croatian national team coach). Most of this action took place throughout the 1990s — a time not only of great adventure, but of wisdom-accumulation.
Visiting several dozen countries, being engaged but never marrying, enduring a war and a near-fatal car accident were all parts of the transformation Sumich underwent. Also vital were the Rosary and the prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden, as well as St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Sumich entered Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, in 2002 and six years later was ordained for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Auckland, New Zealand. After ministering in Nigeria, the United States and Canada, Father Sumich returned again to New Zealand in 2016. The 57-year-old is presently the pastor at St. Anne’s Chapel in Auckland, where he recently did the following interview.
Even though you were on the Croatian national rugby team coach, you were actually born in New Zealand?
I was born and raised in New Zealand, not knowing a word of Croatian until I was in my 20s. My Croatian name comes from my grandfather, who moved here, along with many other Eastern Europeans, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
I’m from Auckland, located on the upper half of the North Island. With its population of 1.5 million, Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, with about 30% of the country’s overall population.
Aside from the Eastern European immigrants, there’s a larger European influence overall in New Zealand. It is part of the British Empire, so Queen Elizabeth II is actually the head of state and appoints our governor-general.
So that British influence extended to sports, as well?
Most of the really good international rugby teams have European connections. Aside from New Zealand, which has won three Rugby World Cups and has had many other good placings in the competition, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales and France have done well internationally, too.
New Zealand is ideal for rugby and other outdoor sports — such as cricket, also a British import — because the climate does not change all that much during the year. We are rarely over 90 degrees and rarely under 40 degrees, so there’s a very strong outdoor culture here.
We also have a more generalized sporting culture than many other countries. In our equivalent of high schools, for example, there is not a varsity and junior varsity for a given sport. Rather, there are many teams. At my own alma mater, St. Peter’s College — a secondary school that includes middle and high school — there were 800 boys and 20 rugby teams. Everyone played.
I was so enthralled by rugby and other sports that I placed them ahead of my faith. I went to Catholic schools and to Mass, but did not really know what I was doing. I knew far more about how to play sports than about moral theology or the sacraments or ways of praying.
How did you get a better understanding of the Church?
That took a while. I studied civil engineering here in New Zealand and then, at age 22, had my first overseas experience — what we New Zealanders call an “OE” — to Europe in 1986. It was a five-week trip with my rugby buddies that included Yugoslavia, or what today is Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia.
I returned to New Zealand and saw four of my teammates from the local rugby club become part of New Zealand’s national team. They won the 1987 World Rugby Cup, which was quite a thrill.
Around this time, I worked as an engineer. Then, in 1989, Wall Street took a tumble, and that had an effect as far away as Auckland, where I was, as the construction sector was greatly downsized. Because of the economic downturn and because of how much I enjoyed sports and my first trip to Europe, I jumped at the chance to embark on another OE.
I went back to Europe and loved visiting Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Poland and so many other countries. All the history, architecture, art, languages, food and other things kept my attention — not to mention, all the while, I was engaging in as much rugby, cricket and skiing as time would allow.
Then you became the Croatian rugby team coach in 1997.
I was prevented from living in Croatia during the wars that started in 1991, but, after being a ski instructor in Austria for quite a few years and also playing rugby on the club level, I returned to Croatia and became their national team coach.
Over a period of five years we used numerous foreign-born players with Croatian heritage. Players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa came and spent a month at a time in Croatia, reconnecting with their roots and playing rugby. We were not the ideal team from an organizational standpoint, but we worked hard and, despite having only five rugby clubs in the whole country, moved up in the ranks of European teams. In 2001, we placed second in the European Nations Cup second division, which basically meant we were near the top of the smaller countries in Europe.
I also became a player on the national cricket team in Croatia. That team had a somewhat similar progression as the rugby team: We were not in the top tier overall, but we did get better within our own sphere.
You could even say the same thing was happening with my faith. I was slowly “moving up the ranks” and getting a better grip on the meaning of life. The peace of Croatia in the late ’80s that turned into war in the early ’90s was a jarring experience. Gunfire and military aircraft flying overhead became the norm. I even had a gun pointed directly at me once and was rounded up with bunch of other civilians.
Then, in 1994, I was in a massive car accident. The car I was driving was almost totally crushed. I should have been crushed, too, but literally walked away unscathed. I knew, standing next to the wreckage, that it resembled my soul. If I had died, I would have been in hell.
What were some of the specifics of your conversion?
Before I had left for Europe the second time, a friend invited me to a traditional Latin Mass in New Zealand. I was enchanted by what I witnessed. It was different from any other Mass I had been to. It struck me as serious, holy and beautiful. You could tell it was not just something whipped up by a local liturgical committee; it was a centuries-old rite that expressed the Catholic faith in a sublime way. I was impressed, but was still dominated by my youthful desires to explore the world, so that Mass was filed away mentally for me to retrieve later.
In the ’90s, my mother gave me a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was the first time that I encountered a serious attempt to teach the faith systematically. I had gone to Mass for years, but with that book, I was really starting to understand what I had been doing by rote.
Then the same friend who invited me to that traditional Latin Mass gave me a copy of the first volume from the Michael Davies liturgical trilogy. That book, called Cranmer’s Godly Order, opened my eyes even more. I saw that what had occurred liturgically in the 1500s in England had then reoccurred in the last half of the 20th century — but this time in the whole Western world.
In addition to those books — and St. Augustine’s Confessions — I was praying a daily Rosary and the 15 Prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden. It was said that Christ was hit 5,480 times in his passion, so if those prayers are prayed every day for a year, with an Our Father and Hail Mary preceding them, they would total 5,480, thus providing Christ spiritual recompense for what he endured and, at the same time, much grace for my own soul.
How did you go from being a “revert” to becoming a priest?
After that year of St. Bridget prayers, I knew one thing for sure: I was called to be a priest. I did not know how to go about becoming a priest, but I knew with certainty that the priesthood was for me.
I embarked on a hilarious journey to Rome, where I asked the Vatican’s Information Office where I should go to become a priest. A Scottish priest in one of the Vatican offices helped me out, and I eventually encountered the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
I studied under great professors, such as Dennis McInerny, who is among the holiest of men I’ve ever met. He is so knowledgeable but is so open to what other people have to say. He admits when he doesn’t know something and has an appreciation for reality.
That might seem like an odd compliment, but, really, all of our troubles seem to arise when we block out reality. Virtue, on the other hand, comes about when we face reality and, with God’s grace, endeavor to engage it by his standards.
We’re all inclined to flatter ourselves and think we’re at a higher level of holiness than we really are. We have to check this and be self-critical, just like a top athlete is. When your standard is so high, you are not easily satisfied. You realize there is so much room for improvement.
That’s one of the key points of being a Catholic: Instead of pretending that baptism is the end of the road, we realize that we can still sin. We have preventative measures, including prayer, Holy Communion, penances and good works — and even confession, which, although only required for mortal sins, is beneficial to participate in regularly so that mortal sins don’t occur.
If, however, a mortal sin is committed, then confession is where it can be forgiven. There’s never a reason to despair in the Catholic Church, since the guilt of any sin, no matter the gravity, can be removed.
Since you were ordained in 2008, you were at the seminary before Nicholas Lemme became the chant instructor, but did you ever meet Father Michael Cunningham, who also has a strong sporting background?
I have met both men, actually, but know Father Cunningham better. Even in the seminary, he continued to cross-train quite extensively, so he carried his athletic background with him.
There really is a spiritual parallel to physical exercise. I told my players as a rugby coach that if you’re weak spiritually, you’ll be weak on the field when it really counts. You have to be willing to say “No” to yourself in order to say “Yes” to God. Self-denial, done out of love for God, is a beautiful thing.
I loved the aggressive, team-oriented nature of rugby and enjoyed competing against strong opponents. Even though I did not have that rare, standout-star quality as a player, I worked very hard to get the most possible out of the ability I did have. I wanted to make sure nothing was left behind, that every effort was put forth in an attempt to win.
Compare that to the most important competition — that of salvation. Really, salvation is the only competition, because if we lose that, we lose everything.
We have an enemy far more ferocious than any athletic opponent. He burns with hatred for us and lies to us in so many ways. He distorts eternal truths to fit the popular feelings of the day and tries to convince us to break with tradition and replace it with “comfortable” things that actually harm us.
The point is to get our attention off God and perpetually onto ourselves, as if we were the ultimate standard for everything. That will result in change after change after change. This perpetual change is what our enemy is after, because that makes us even dizzier than when we started and eventually unable to see anything accurately.
The good news is that God wants us saved more than we want to be saved. He has done the heavy lifting. It is our business, not to save ourselves, but to allow God to save us, to let him into our souls and stay there. In that sense, salvation is much easier than winning a rugby match. We just have to be humble enough to ask for the help.
Are there many Croatian or New Zealander Catholic athletes?
Not too many in New Zealand — at least not too many that I know who actually practice their faith. In Croatia, however, I know of U.S. Tennis Open champion Marin Cilic, who was known to be very strong in his faith. Also, Zlatko Dalic, the coach of the 2018 World Cup finalist Croatian soccer team said, “I always carry a rosary with me,” and “when I feel that I am going through a difficult time, I put my hand in my pocket; I cling to it, and then everything is easier.” But New Zealand is similar to the U.S., in that most well-known athletes are not well-known for being Catholics. However, since the U.S. has a much larger population than either Croatia or New Zealand, there are probably many more well-known Catholic athletes there.
I’ve heard of devout U.S. NFL players, such as Harrison Butker and Philip Rivers. They seem to have their priorities straight and realize that, despite all their efforts to succeed in football, that it is just a game and that there is a far more important competition for us: the fight for salvation.
What would you recommend to a young man who thinks he might have a priestly vocation?
I recommend that a young man spends a healthy amount of time discerning. This he should do through prayer, spiritual direction, spiritual reading and the like, [in order to see if] he does in fact have a vocation. Then he can enter the seminary. After all, you don’t go to a seminary to be a seminarian; you go to a seminary to be a priest.
Once you’re ordained, you’re a priest forever. That might scare some young men in this generation that idolizes perpetual change, but it’s the most amazing thing possible: You share in the priesthood of Christ for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, and, as you aim at those two things, your own soul is sanctified because you’re a conduit of grace, rather than merely teaching your own ideas.
Before finally being ordained in 2008, I had visited or lived in dozens of countries all over Europe, but also some in Africa, South America, North America and Asia — around 82 countries total. All that travel might even be considered extravagant for today’s generation, which is very restless and constantly in search of change.
I was engaged once and was close a second time in the ’90s, but neither marriage took place. One woman broke up with me, while the other one I broke up with. Of course, at the time the breakups occurred, there was pain and sadness, but, looking back now, I am so relieved that neither proposed marriage occurred. There has never been a day that I’ve doubted my priesthood, and I’m very content as a priest.
Ultimately, we cannot be happy by simply pursuing our own interests or rights. We have to serve the interests of others and realize that, in addition to rights, we also have duties. For the man who is called, it is also his duty to pursue that call — and in that pursuit he will find the genuine happiness God is intending for him. To paraphrase St. Augustine, encircle the earth and sea; travel wherever you will, but you will be miserable if you do not find God.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.
His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.