The Healing of a Football Player’s Wounded Heart
Former quarterback finds peace of soul in the Mass, priesthood and intercession of St. Joseph.
The 49th World Day of Prayer for Vocations will be celebrated this Sunday, April 29, with the theme “Vocations, the Gift of the Love of God.” This theme is very close to the heart of Father Joseph Freedy, director of priestly vocations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
There was a time when such a concept was distant from his heart, which had been set on worldly goods. He was a standout quarterback in high school and at the University of Buffalo. Thousands cheered him on and looked up to him, but his heart remained restless. Despite his earnest attempts to the contrary, he could not find happiness in the noise of the world.
Happiness would be found where he had not expected it: in the Mass. After reading The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn, what was once seen as a burdensome routine was revealed to be just what Joseph Freedy’s heart was seeking. His understanding of the Mass was so changed that he went to the seminary. On June 21, 2008, he was ordained a priest.
Father Freedy spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
You recently got back from a silent retreat. Would you recommend such a retreat to others?
Absolutely. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta always said that prayer is “God speaking in the silence of our hearts and us listening.” With the amount of noise in our world today, it really is necessary at times to get away from it in order to be able to connect with God on a deeper level. His voice most often can be heard not in the noise of the world, but in the silence of the heart. In Psalm 46, the Lord says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Then in the New Testament we see that Jesus is frequently going away to a solitary place to pray.
Sometimes when I start my annual retreat, which is required for priests, it takes a couple days to settle down and get into it. It can be a struggle initially, but by the time it’s over, the feeling I have is often one of wanting to stay there forever.
There are many types of retreats out there, but I find that I am disposed best to receive the grace the Lord desires to give on a silent retreat. There’s a time for faith sharing and fellowship, but there’s also a time to be silent and allow the Lord to be the only voice speaking in our hearts.
It’s about getting closer to the Lord and allowing him to speak to your heart. A retreat is basically an extraordinary manifestation of what we should be doing daily in prayer.
Did you want to be a priest as a young boy?
I was raised in a solid Catholic home in which we regularly had incredible priest friends over for dinner. For us, priests weren’t just people you’d only see at Mass, but you’d also see them around the house with your family. As a young boy, I was fascinated by these men and impressed with their exciting lives. Unconsciously, I looked up to them as one would do with an uncle. The call was there from a young age, but it was latent.
Then football came into the picture.
In western Pennsylvania, football is a very big deal, so playing wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. My two older brothers played the game, so I followed suit.
However, I took football too seriously, building my whole identity around it and using it as a means to fill an interior void. I dealt with a lot of insecurity growing up. I had a great family, so I don’t know why that insecurity was there, but from seventh grade through high school and even into college I wanted, even needed, to be the kid I thought everyone wanted me to be.
Religion was put on the back burner, and I tried to overcome the insecurity with praise and acceptance from everyone around me. I was a standout player in high school and then played at the University of Buffalo. During high school and into the first couple of years in college, partying was common for me as well. That was another thing I used in an attempt to fill the void within me.
However, something that helped to lead me into growing up and becoming a man was taking on the responsibility of leading the football team in college. I was not the starting quarterback initially, but because of a series of injuries to the guys ahead of me, I assumed the starting position for the 1999 season. Being the leader of a football team in Buffalo, where the sport is also taken seriously, was a way to start looking beyond myself and become more serious about life.
What were the other things that enabled you to do that?
In college, I got caught up in the garbage of the party scene, but through becoming the starting quarterback and being in a serious relationship with a girl for a few years, the Lord helped to pull me out of some of that.
Then, a third thing that helped me grow up and really changed my life forever was reading a great book when I was home from college for Christmas break. My father would always have a Bible on the end table, along with another book. He would read from them before going to work each morning. Well, the book he happened to have there when I was on break was The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn.
The opening paragraph really caught my eye because of how it related to my own life. It basically said that, on the one hand, nothing is so familiar to Catholics as the Mass, yet most of us don’t know what is beyond the surface of the memorized prayers. That really described my experience. I had attended Mass all my life but had never really looked beyond the outward appearances. Once I did look beyond them, I was drawn in by what was there.
My heart began to be filled with peace, joy and love. It was similar to St. Augustine’s experience, in that he had looked all over for happiness, but, only years later, realized that it was right in front of him. It was right there all along. My heart’s deepest longing would be satisfied in the Mass like I had never thought possible.
What did you do next?
After reading The Lamb’s Supper, I went back to school and wanted to go deeper into my faith and share what I had learned. I went to a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but, at the time, I found many of the ideas the group discussed to be in opposition to what I was taught as a Catholic.
Then I went before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and asked him what to do. I spent a lot of time with the Lord, wrestling with him as far as what his plan for me was. On the one hand, I was beginning to be so much happier than before, but, on the other hand, I was at first very reluctant to really let go of my own designs on life and pursue the priesthood.
I met with a vocations director, and he gently encouraged me to surrender to God’s plan for my life. God knows what’s best for us infinitely better than we do, so the intelligent thing to do is let him guide us.
After you surrendered to this call, you studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. What was that like?
It was an incredible experience. My first year there (2005) was the year Blessed Pope John Paul II died. There was his enormous funeral, which attracted attention from around the world. Then we welcomed our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. What a blessing both men are to the Church.
During my time there, I got to see that the city of Rome is saturated with grace — so much history, so many saints, so many visible testaments to the Christian faith. It was a great faith-building experience I’m so grateful for.
I also got to travel outside of Rome, and it was really an eye-opening thing to witness the truly universal character of the Church. Regardless of where you are in the world, it is one Catholic Church we belong to.
What do you appreciate most about the priesthood?
I could talk for an hour about this. The thing that’s most amazing is acting in persona Christi — or “in the person of Christ.” This is what occurs in confession, when the priest says not “Jesus absolves you,” but “I absolve you.” It also occurs in the Mass, when the priest says not “This is Jesus’ body,” but “This is my body.”
The priest is the mediator between God and men, which is an unbelievably beautiful and profound thing: God is calling me to do this. It’s so great that it’s difficult not to cry when thinking about it. Sometimes I have cried even while acting in persona Christi because I’m struck with the love God has for his people. The humility of God to allow mere men to act in the person of the Only Begotten Son is an amazing thing.
To know that my hands have been anointed to bring the body and blood of Christ to the world and to forgive sins — what an indescribable blessing. The gift of the priesthood is overwhelming. I’ve been ordained for almost four years now and have never had an unhappy day as a priest. Praise God for that.
You’re currently the director of priestly vocations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. What are some of the challenges you face in that position?
I’ve been doing this for two years now, and it’s an incredible joy. There are challenges, though, to building a culture of vocations. Perhaps the biggest one is convincing young people that God is alive and real and has a perfect plan for our lives. He has prepared a vocation for each and every one of us from all eternity.
It’s the concept expressed in Jeremiah 1:5: that before God formed us in the womb, he knew us. Our lives are not accidents, but perfectly prepared and provided for by God. I’m so content knowing that I’m doing what I was born to do, and I want others to know that contentment as well by helping them to realize their own calls.
What advice do you give to young men who are discerning a call to the priesthood?
There are three essential things I mention, and all of them lead us closer to God. The first is prayer. You simply have to pray every day; otherwise, you’re not going to have the grace to do God’s will. Praying as a child in need of his father’s help is what enables us to live our daily lives in peace.
What I tell young men regarding a possible priestly vocation is to pray over the calls recorded in the Bible. That is, meditate upon the call of Abraham, of David, of Jeremiah, of St. Peter, of St. Paul. Look into the history of how God calls men to his service and pray about whether this is something God is calling you to as well.
The second thing that is incredibly helpful is Eucharistic adoration, which can be seen as a specific form or occurrence of prayer. It’s talking with Jesus in his direct presence. The same Jesus who walked the earth 2,000 years ago is still with us today in the Eucharist. Prayer before the Lord is something very special.
The third essential thing is to stay close to Our Lady. John Paul II wrote that all vocations occur with a Marian disposition at the Annunciation. In other words, we may not have been planning on a specific calling, but when we know God is calling us, we have to be receptive to that and put it into action with love.
There is also a book I like to recommend to young men discerning a priestly vocation. It’s called To Save a Thousand Souls by Father Brett A. Brannen.
Do you have a patron saint?
St. Joseph is my patron. He was the most chaste spouse of Our Lady and the foster father of Jesus. How amazing is that? As the protector and head of the Holy Family, he is a prime example of what a man in general, and what a priest specifically, should be. This is explained in the book The Life and Glories of St. Joseph by Father Edward Healy Thompson.
St. Teresa of Avila had great admiration for St. Joseph and said that anyone who was having trouble praying should take him as a guide. She received many benefits from him and wanted to share his powerful intercession with everyone else. I understand her desire because, like the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph is often overlooked today. If we learned more about St. Joseph and became more devoted to him, we would come much closer to being the men God called us to be. We would be totally dedicated to Jesus and Mary.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.