From Olympic Athlete to Diocesan Priest
New York native Father Joe Fitzgerald now recruits others to serve at the altar.
It’s not often that someone can say his local priest was also an Olympic athlete. However, this can be done in the case of Father Joe Fitzgerald, who competed in the 1996 games in Atlanta. He was on the U.S. handball team with his brother, Thomas. They had traveled to dozens of countries for competitions and were back home playing on the biggest athletic stage in the world.
Participating in the Olympics was a great thrill for Father Fitzgerald, but it pales in comparison to serving as a minster of God. Now, as vocations director for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., he works daily to find other men who will share in the joy of his ministry.
Father Joe Fitzgerald spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
What exactly is handball?
Handball — not to be confused with American handball, which is like racquetball — developed into its modern-day form largely through early 20th-century European soccer coaches who wanted their players to learn how to use their hands in recreation. It is now played indoors with teams (of seven competitors each) trying to score goals on each other. Maybe the simplest way to describe it is that it’s like water polo without the water and played in a gym.
How did you get started in handball?
I would tag along with my brother, Thomas, who is five and a half years older than I am, to his sports practices. I loved being around older kids doing things I wanted to do. I looked up to them and couldn’t wait to get out and run around like they were. Little did I know that in 1996 I would be playing on the U.S. Olympic handball team with my brother.
As I grew older and did play on my own teams, a P.E. teacher at North Babylon High School and the school’s principal came up with handball as a way for getting all kinds of different kids to play on the same team. We enjoyed it a lot, and we became quite good at it; and it never seemed to interfere with the schedules of my other sports of football, basketball and baseball.
I got to play football at Ithaca College, a Division III school. I was the backup quarterback on their national championship team in 1991. Curiously, I was one of the team’s leading rushers as the backup QB — that shows how much I liked to run the ball — and the next year, as a senior starter, we went 9-1, but did not make it back to the national championship game.
Like most college players, I didn’t go to the NFL, but I did start playing handball more intensely, traveling to approximately 50 countries for competitions. The biggest highlight was playing on the U.S. Olympic team with my brother in 1996. So much dedication went into making that team, and the overall experience at the games was so amazing that I don’t feel bad about not winning a medal. That would have been nice, but as the Olympic Oath states, it is about the opportunity to compete more than to win.
Did you always know you’d be a priest?
As a kid I was not certain I’d be a priest, but I was open to the possibility. I thought maybe I’d get married or be a priest, so either vocation was in play. My brother, two sisters and I were encouraged by our parents to pursue whatever vocation we might have, and my uncle was a priest, so that made priesthood more visible to me.
I lived in the Atlanta area from 1994 to 2000 and got acquainted with Life Teen. It was at one of their retreats I helped to lead that the Lord really got my attention. It was during a Eucharistic adoration prayer service when it became so clear that it wasn’t enough for me to talk about being a follower of Christ; I had to actually do more following of Christ myself.
I had made some really dumb decisions and was not really living on a level pleasing to God. I understood that being lukewarm was not an option and that I had a choice between heaven and hell. God wanted me to belong entirely to him, but I was just talking the talk and walking the walk only when it was convenient for me.
I entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Douglaston, N.Y., on Aug. 30, 2001, which was my 30th birthday. Shortly after that, and only a few miles away, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. That was a very jarring time. It showed how goodness and hope, as expressed in the vocation to the priesthood lived out, were sorely needed.
I was ordained on June 9, 2007, and now as a diocesan vocations director, I want to encourage other men to share in this life of generosity and love that the priesthood allows. The 31 courageous men studying for our diocese is the most we have had in 30 years, and it will likely become even bigger, as men are drawn out of worldly concerns and more open to what God has in store for them.
Do you have any advice for young people discerning a vocation?
The first essential step to hearing God’s call is to turn off the technology and enter what I call “a culture of quiet.” We cannot pray well or even think well when noise diverts our attention at every turn. It is very easy in our time to become saturated with all kinds of useless information that keeps us from entering into a dialogue with God.
Once the technology has been reduced to a minimum, our relationship with God is strengthened by the Eucharist and the Scriptures. In addition to attending Mass as often as one can, I would recommend Bible reading and Eucharistic adoration. The Bible is God’s written word, and the Eucharist is the Word made flesh, so there’s a powerful connection there.
A next step is to be near people who are in a vocation you are considering. I had a priest tell me, back when I was in the discernment process, this basic message in a funny way. He said, “Dude, you’ve dated half the women in New York and half the women in Atlanta; now you need to date the priesthood.” That startled me at first, but what he meant was: You can’t just discern on a theoretical level. You have to see up close what your possible vocation is — in my case, to be around priests and see what they do on a daily basis in the Church.
Are you happy with the decision you made?
Very happy. In my final handball match, I scored eight goals and never looked back. I’m totally at peace with leaving the sport when I did and pursuing the priesthood. There’s something in my vocation that I could never have gained in handball or in any other sport.
I’ve heard of studies in which people are asked if they would recommend their profession to others. Usually about 60% of them say, “Yes,” but in the case of priests, it’s about 90%. Priests, for the most part, do enjoy their vocation and work.
A priest’s life, lived well, is so fulfilling because the priesthood is, as St. John Vianney said, the love of the heart of Jesus.
What advice would you give Olympic athletes?
In order to be an Olympic athlete, you don’t need to be the most talented. There were guys with more natural ability than I had, but they did not persevere. They gave up, one by one, while I was working out twice a day, six days a week and once on Sundays. I missed so many family weddings, baptisms and gatherings because of my commitment to being an elite athlete.
There is a price for everything, and the price for the Olympics is high. Even though I willingly paid the price and enjoyed the adventure, the whole thing can actually be a heavy burden. People say, “Look, there’s the Olympian,” and they expect a lot out of you. It can taint your view of yourself and make you think that being a great athlete is all-important.
What I would say to those getting ready to compete in Rio is, despite all the work put in and the attention it draws, the practices, games and medals do not define who they are. Their greatest title, no matter how many medals they might win, is being a beloved son or daughter or God. Knowing this, they should compete, not for their own glory, but for the glory of God.
I wish I had understood this much earlier, but I took myself and sports too seriously at times. There’s a story from the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics that illustrates this well.
As the U.S. athletes entered the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, we had to walk up a ramp that led to the infield of Centennial Olympic Stadium as thousands of the best athletes from all over the world were parading around the stadium of 100,000 spectators. There were heads of state and other celebrities, and I got to see it all close up, since the Americans, as the host team, entered the stadium last. It was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, so, wanting it to last as long as possible, I stood at the top of the ramp and paused for a bit.
A little attendant, with her Southern accent, said to me, “Sir, you’re going to have to move on.” She wanted to make sure we all processed as planned, but I wasn’t quite ready to enter the stadium. Then someone bumped into me from behind. I was put off by this and was ready, with my New York attitude, to turn around and set that person straight. Well, I turned around, and who did I see? Shaquille O’Neal. My New York attitude took an L.A. shift as this 7-foot-1, 325-pound NBA All-Star looked down and said to me, “My bad, little man.”
Being 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds made me little in comparison with Shaq, and it showed how little my priorities were. I was taking myself and the experience too seriously — and I was not taking God’s will for me seriously enough. That was a memorable thing that, looking back, probably helped to get me on the right track.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Beacon, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.