Marching Away From ‘Madness’ and Toward Wholeness
Former Michigan basketball player Pete Burak assists Renewal Ministries with young-adult apostolate.
As a point guard in high school and college, Pete Burak grew accustomed to assisting his team. After a good high-school career, he made the roster at the University of Michigan in 2007 and then played for Franciscan University the following two seasons.
Burak, now back in Ann Arbor, assists Renewal Ministries with its young-adult apostolate, called i.d.9:16. The unusual name is taken from the group’s main emphasis of forming the identity of young-adult Catholics as “intentional disciples” in light of 1 Corinthians 9:16, where St. Paul expresses the necessity to preach the Gospel. The apostolate partners with parishes to form “intentional disciples” by providing a new vision, leadership formation and ongoing support.
While in Steubenville, Burak met his future wife, Cait, with whom he now has three children. He shared his family’s longstanding involvement with sports, in light of what matters most, leading up to the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, which starts March 13.
What do you think of Michigan’s season, and who are your favorites for the NCAA tournament?
Michigan has been a fun team to watch this year. They have senior leaders and young guys who have played very well. When they shoot the three effectively, they are tough to beat. Coach John Beilein, who is Catholic, has guided many of his teams to NCAA tournaments, and this year’s team could go a long way.
I’d say there are probably eight teams that have a very realistic shot at winning the whole thing. Duke (coached by Coach K) and Purdue (coached by Matt Painter) have been looking good, but it all depends on getting hot at the right time, which is almost always a result of having a great point guard. He’s the one who starts everything and makes it possible for a team to go on a run.
How did you get to play at Michigan?
Well, I would use the term “play” in a loose way. I never actually played in an official game, but I was on the official roster in 2007-2008. I had tried out for the team the previous season and didn’t make it. I was a manager with the team instead, and the next year — Coach Beilein’s first with the team — I made the roster, but didn’t play in games. Then there were some injuries and a player left the team, so I was needed as an additional guard. I went from practicing with the team every day to wearing a uniform and traveling with the team to great basketball schools like Michigan State and Indiana.
It was a thrill to be part of a team from the school that my father, grandfather and great-grandfather attended as student-athletes. My father was the baseball team’s MVP his senior year of 1974, my grandfather was a gymnast before that, and my great-grandfather played on the football team before that. He also went on to play center for the Green Bay Packers, despite weighing only 150 pounds. Our family laughs at that, since centers weigh twice as much today.
Out of all those sports in your family, how did basketball become your specialty?
I loved baseball as a kid, but when I was 9, my shoulder started giving me problems. The doctor said there was inflammation that wouldn’t cease until I had stopped growing. That meant baseball would take a backseat to basketball, since in basketball I could play without nearly as much pain.
However, the pain was really a doorway for Jesus to get my attention in a new way. My parents invited me to offer my life to Jesus — shoulder pain and everything else. I had watched them faithfully live for him, so I trusted them, and, that night, I got down on my knees and prayed a simple prayer of surrender.
Not everything became ideal after my prayer to Jesus, though. In fact, the shoulder pain got worse. After receiving Holy Communion one day, in the quiet of my heart, Jesus asked me, “Pete, are you willing to suffer for me?” I said “Yes,” and after that, I experienced all kinds of injuries — not related to my shoulder at all — in seemingly every sports season, including a broken nose, broken ankles and torn rib cartilage that developed into pneumonia.
Becoming a committed disciple of Christ does not mean everything will go smoothly. We will experience suffering, but by walking with Christ, we will have the grace not only to bear it, but to grow in joy, peace and love. It’s still hard, but Jesus is with us.
Taking that theme further, do you have any advice for making Lent more productive?
There’s a piece of advice that is so obvious, but yet so often overlooked. Simply ask Jesus what he wants us to do for Lent. It is easy to bypass Jesus and make Lent into a “self-improvement project.” We might give up candy in order to lose weight, or choose something else that is helpful to us in non-spiritual terms, and that’s okay, but connecting our sacrifices to his will and seeking his desire for the 40 days can change everything into a selfless endeavor that is, in the last analysis, most truly to our advantage.
Since i.d.9:16 is part of Renewal Ministries, a charismatic group, have you found some people to be leery of it, expecting it to be wild or unorthodox?
The term “charismatic” carries a lot of preconceptions for many people; some of which is justified because of practices deemed “charismatic” that are not grounded in actual Church teaching. At i.d.9:16 and Renewal, we tend use the term “charismatic” to mean being completely open to the Holy Spirit, as demonstrated by the early Church.
The Church grew out of Pentecost, and we are in a similar apostolic age today, so we need to be wide open to all the power and the gifts the Spirit has for us. A short but powerful prayer that helps make this possible is what I call my daily “text message” to God: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
What does i.d.9:16 do specifically?
We partner with parishes to help them form their young adults (in their 20s and 30s, married, single, with or without kids) into intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. We want to create a community of missionary disciples within the parish who are not only engaging others in the pews, but also those who aren’t there.
We train leaders, provide content for monthly meetings, and provide a framework for discipleship small groups. We started because we saw a ministry hole in many parishes where high school and college students had excellent discipleship ministries, but not for young adults. This age range is vitally important because my generation is rapidly detaching from the Church, and we need to help them meet the Lord and be gently but persistently brought more deeply into, or back into, the Church he established.
While young adults might know the what and the how of the Church, they do not know the why. That leaves them with seemingly random rules rather than meaningful relationships. As human beings, we were created to be in relationship with God and with other human beings. A three-dimensional life is needed: upward (to God), inward (toward each other) and outward (to those not yet in our faith community).
At i.d.9:16 we promote four pillar of Catholic discipleship: Conversion is the first pillar, since we must have an encounter with the Lord, which leads to a decision to follow him. The second is communion, which is at its height with Holy Communion, but which is also expressed in many other ways in a parish. The third is orthodoxy, or being a fully Catholic disciple who embraces all the Church’s teachings. The fourth pillar is mission, since all of us, by virtue of our baptism, are called to go out and make disciples.
What are some of the biggest roadblocks to the four pillars being part of someone’s life?
I’ve mentioned the challenge of emphasizing the what and how, instead of the why of Church teaching, and there are two others that are big and closely related. One is that those of us in our 20s and 30s are a deeply wounded generation. Many factors have contributed to this wounding, but one of the most significant is the perceived failure of anyone who’s ever tried to lead us. Anyone we’ve put our faith in has let us down, whether that be sports stars, politicians, Church leaders or even our own parents. This has caused a deep distrust and cynicism toward leadership, even though we know we need guidance.
Another challenge, closely related to being wounded, is that we are “the maybe generation.” There’s an allergy to commitment, which results from not wanting to get hurt, along with the constant and countless opportunities we have for distractions and new experiences. Social media, technology, ease of travel, etc. have all contributed to my generation wanting to always keep our options open, which directly contradicts the radical call of obedience discipleship requires.
You do a lot of public speaking, so do you have a favorite speaker of your own?
There are different favorites for different topics — and, by extension, for different venues. Father Dave Pivonka of Franciscan University is the one of the best for preaching the Gospel, especially in a liturgical setting. Dr. Peter Kreeft is a master communicator on complex topics; he makes things so clear. Sister Ann Shields, a colleague of mine at Renewal Ministries, is wonderful for breaking open our call to intimacy for God in a conversational but convicting way. I might be biased, but I also think Renewal’s Ralph Martin and Peter Herbeck have been given incredible gifts for making clear what the Lord wants to give us and he wants from us.
For speakers in the past, I would love to have heard St. Francis of Assisi, St. Paul and St. Peter. This goes, of course, without mentioning the obvious speaker I would love to have heard in person: Christ himself.
People probably expect you to have St. Peter the Apostle as a patron, but there are many other St. Peters, such as Canisius, Celestine, Chrysologus, Claver, Damien and Lombard. Are you devoted to any of those?
There are plenty of great men of the Church named Peter, but St. Peter the Apostle is my guy. We share a lot, such as denying the Lord in a public way, which I did three times in my freshman year of high school. St. Peter was a normal guy, but through his relationship with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, he became great in the eyes of God.
I pray that we could all have the same commitment and deep love for Christ. Peter dropped his nets, got out of the boat, sometimes got things right and sometimes didn’t, but he never stopped pursuing Jesus. Through i.d.9:16 we’re trying to help young adults undertake a similar adventure. The Lord has need of my generation, and just like St. Peter, we have the opportunity to say “Yes” to Christ’s call. I pray we do. I have great hope for our Church and this confusing, broken, but wonderful, generation.
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.
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