The ‘Final Four’ Last Things
Bishop John Barres of Allentown, Pa., reflects on the basketball-faith connection.
With only four teams remaining in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the end is fast approaching. Bishop John Barres, who played three years of junior-varsity basketball at Princeton University, sees a connection between the “apocalyptic” nature of postseason collegiate basketball and human life in general.
Pointing to the parables that emphasize the importance of vigilance for the reappearance of Christ — whether at the hour of death or at the Second Coming — Bishop Barres likes to recall the ultimate purpose of life: complete conversion to Christ and his Church — not at a later date, but now, while there is still time.
The shepherd of Allentown, Pa., takes inspiration for his daily evangelization efforts from having been baptized by Bishop Fulton Sheen in 1960. Bishop Barres admires Venerable Sheen’s dedication to the spread of the Gospel, even calling him “the American St. Paul.”
Bishop Barres answered questions from Register correspondent Trent Beattie about evangelization in connection with basketball, including the NCAA tournament, which continues today. The winner of the first semifinal, Michigan State vs. Duke, will tip off against the winner of the second semifinal, Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, in Monday’s final.
Have you been following the NCAA basketball tournament this year, and if so, what have you appreciated most so far?
I always enjoy following the NCAA basketball tournament, and I like to fill out brackets of the teams with our Catholic Charities staff. So far, I have been impressed especially with Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey’s tribute to his mother — who died right before their second-round game — and her impact on his very inspirational and classy coaching style. I was also impressed with Villanova Coach Jay Wright’s dignified words at a press conference after a very disappointing second-round defeat.
Of course, as a former Princeton JV basketball player from 1978-81, I always love to see the replay in the NCAA highlights of Allentown Central Catholic High School graduate Gabe Lewullis’ backdoor-cut layup defeating UCLA in 1996 and my friend, legendary Princeton Coach Pete Carril, celebrating that great win. I also enjoyed the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Princeton’s 1989 near-upset of Georgetown and the impact that single game had on the development of the tournament.
Do you see a connection between the “Final Four” and the final “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell), such as the fact that the day of a semifinal game is not the time to start taking basketball seriously, and neither is one’s deathbed the time to start taking one’s obligations to God seriously?
There is something about the road to the Final Four — the one-and-done nature of the tournament, the buzzer-beating shots, the unexpected upsets and the “one shining moment” montage at the end of the championship game — that is apocalyptic!
All the coaches and teams in the tournament emphasize readiness for each game and for each coaching scenario or momentum shift. The same should be the case for life in general: We should all be prepared and ready to meet new challenges as they emerge.
So many of the Gospel parables speak to us about vigilance and readiness in regard to the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God, so we shouldn’t put off a call to conversion or the call to have Christ always at the center of our lives and our destinies. We should surrender, as Pope Francis urges us, to “the unpredictable power of the Gospel,” which takes each of us far beyond any human calculation or plan: to our eternal destiny.
When you played basketball in high school and college, was it merely for recreation or did you find spiritual strength in it?
It was actually both of those things. I loved playing basketball for the fun of it, and I also found great spiritual development in the experience. So many of my best friendships in life were forged on a basketball court. I believe that a team sport like basketball teaches young people sacrifice, leadership, team chemistry, motivation and generosity — all qualities that are key to young people being 21st-century evangelizing leaders in our Church.
I found that when I dedicated basketball — everything from ball-handling and shooting drills to a commitment to nonstop, tenacious defense, to the camps and games — to Christ, the experience was so much richer and deeper.
Peter, James and John were called by Christ from their fishing nets. In many ways, I was called by Christ to be a priest from a basketball court — you could even say from the net below the rim — at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium.
As Pope Francis said in Rio during World Youth Day, young people are called to shake up the Church and the world with their prayer, dedication and fidelity to their Catholic faith — in other words, through their daily dedication to the word of God and their love and commitment to the cosmic power of the Catholic Mass working in their lives.
Part of the witness of our Catholic youth is given on basketball courts and athletic fields, in spring musicals and orchestra recitals. The light of Christ shines through their lived-out Catholic faith and inspires so many as they humbly develop their talents and Christian character in a diverse range of activities.
Do you use basketball today as an entry point to speak with young people about the Catholic faith?
Definitely. In basketball, I was a point guard, and so the leader on the floor. I often tell young people that the leadership and team-chemistry skills I learned as a Princeton JV point guard, dedicating my basketball experience to Christ, prepared me to be a “point guard” in the Catholic Church as their bishop and shepherd in the Diocese of Allentown.
I conducted a basketball clinic that was recorded, and it has received almost 9,000 hits on YouTube. I trust that has done a lot of good, not just from a basketball point of view, but from a faith one, too. Hopefully, young people will see that priests and bishops are real people who live in the same world they do. That makes it easier for them to see their Catholic faith as vitally important, rather than something only for past generations.
I also had a basketball card — similar to baseball trading cards — made that I have given personally to many of our young people. On one side of the card is a picture of me as a bishop with a quote from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that I used at Princeton when entering a game in a pressure situation: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” The other side of the card is a picture of me going for a layup in my Princeton basketball uniform at Jadwin Gym.
A mother recently told me that her middle-school son still has a copy of my basketball card on his wall right between posters of LeBron James (coached by my friend, former Princeton shooting guard David Blatt) and Michael Jordan. We had a great laugh together over that!
Both of your parents were Protestant ministers, but converted to Catholicism. Has that had an effect on how you value Catholicism and how you see other religions?
My parents, Oliver and Marjorie Barres, were a courageous couple who completely changed the course of their lives to follow Christ and the truths of the Catholic faith. One of the truths that they treasured as they became Catholic was apostolic succession, and one of the unforeseen consequences of their decision to become Catholic was that their son would one day become a successor of the apostles as the bishop of Allentown.
My father wrote a book about his and my mom’s experience of conversion to the Catholic faith called One Shepherd, One Flock (published by Sheed and Ward in 1955 and republished by Catholic Answers in 2000). As the child of Protestant-minister converts who had sacrificed so much to become Catholics, my five siblings and I always had a vibrant sense of why we were Catholic.
You were baptized by Venerable Fulton Sheen. What do you think of being baptized by such a holy man and did your family keep in touch with him after that experience?
Bishop Sheen’s life was dedicated to global missionary outreach and evangelization. He would talk to anyone at any time about the Catholic faith. He was the American St. Paul, who recognized early on the opportunity to harness the emerging television medium to evangelize Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The sacrament of baptism by its very nature is designed to make us global missionary disciples. That Bishop Sheen poured the waters of baptism over my head was a unique moment of Providence in my life and I often think of my responsibility in the context of Bishop Sheen baptizing me to be, as a bishop, a nonstop and relentless evangelizer.
My parents did exchange letters with Bishop Sheen over the years, and I still have an autographed picture of him (a tribute to my father, who worked for him at The Society for the Propagation of the Faith) in my office.
Pope Francis will be visiting Pennsylvania later this year for the World Meeting of Families. Are you planning on attending?
I am definitely planning to be present and to be ready to make whatever contribution the Pennsylvania bishops will be called to make. The World Meeting of Families is a powerful opportunity for the global Church to witness to the truths of Christ’s vision of Catholic marriage and family — truths of unity, fidelity, indissolubility, along with the missionary nature of the vocation of marriage. These objective truths are liberating and inspiring to the entire human family.
The World Meeting of Families is also a call for all of us to step up even more and reach out in mercy and compassion to families that are broken and hurting. This is symbolized by Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, which, appropriately enough, was brought about by the intercession of his own mother — and our spiritual mother — the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
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