By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent
With Catholic Athletes for Christ in the Diocese of Trenton, what began six years ago as a mere idea has blossomed into an evangelical force to be reckoned with, its enthusiasm seeming only to grow each year.
Photo Gallery: Catholic Athletes for Christ
A testament to that passion was the annual CAC High School Leadership Conference Sept. 19 in the diocesan Chancery in Lawrenceville. Forty-eight student Cathletes and school principals, teachers and coaches from eight Catholic high schools gathered to represent their respective CAC chapters, using the day for prayer, brainstorming and collaboration, all with the same goal: to spread their faith through their love of sports.
Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education, extolled the CAC members for their role in teaching discipleship to their peers.
“We want each and every one of our schools to be a place where you encounter Jesus Christ,” Father Zeis said. “We want you to be able to graduate from our Catholic schools, taking Christ with you into your next phase of life. With Catholic Athletes for Christ, you’re doing that, you’re teaching discipleship, not only to your fellow athletes, but to your whole school community.”
Dan Duddy, Cathlete chapter program coordinator and pastoral minister of athletics in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, emphasized how the Diocese’s CAC program has been an example not just to other New Jersey Catholic high schools, but also to the nation.
“It’s really become our flagship program,” Duddy said. “The evangelization that’s taking place in our high schools is going out nationally – your work does not just stay here.”
He noted other programs in the Archdioceses of Newark and Philadelphia that have been modeled on the Trenton Diocese’ CAC, as well as several CAC camps and summer retreats in the works nationwide, now displayed on the website, Cathletes.org.
Participants also joined Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in the Our Lady Grotto of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, to pray a decade of the Rosary. Bishop O’Connell then blessed a basket of CAC logo pins for those in attendance.
Tony Flego, CAC facilitator for Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank, oversaw a breakout session with the Cathletes and their schools’ CAC adult supervisors. Intermingling with other high schools, the students discussed the CAC’s impact, its challenges and how to make the program more successful.
“We need to realize the impact we have had in the country – we are the program everyone looks to,” Flego told the students. “What you give us is what we can bring back to others. We are looking at what you’re doing and what’s working. I’m interested in learning how the chapters are using CAC in your schools.”
Strength in Numbers
Morgan Fahy, a freshman in St. Rose High School, Belmar, believes being a part of the CAC has strengthened his faith.
“It makes me closer to my team – we’re more united, and we pray before we play sports,” he said. “And now when I eat dinner with my family, we say a prayer [before the meal].” Fahy, who plays soccer, basketball and track, believes being a part of CAC “is going to make me a better team player.”
Colin Curtin, senior in Holy Cross Academy, Delran, was attending the CAC Leadership Conference for the first time, but had been a member in prior years.
“It really strengthened my faith,” he attested. “I was always a strong believer, but this made it even stronger. We pray before every game, and I feel that makes us a family, and brings everyone in the club together as a family.”
Curtin, who also plays soccer, basketball and track, enjoys the chance to spend time with likeminded athletes.
“People have always been afraid of believing, and [CAC] has shown me that there are other people like me, who are proud of their faith, and want to spread it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making the club bigger, getting more involved and doing more service as a club.”
School principals, teachers and coaches met with Duddy and Daniel White, athletic director of St. Rose High School, to discuss how the CAC program can continue its work to evangelize. Of particular interest is the Cathletes’ own families – some of whom have returned to their Catholic faith as a result of their children’s participation in CAC.
“We are commissioning them, we are handing the Church to them,” Duddy said of the coaches and athletes who belong to CAC.
Bob Abatemarco, principal of Red Bank Catholic High School, agreed. “It’s an important piece of where we go [as a group].” He remarked on the falloff of church attendance among Catholic school families. “We need to bring the Church to them,” he said. “The kids are looking for it ... And we can, in a very real way, make it something important in their lives.”
Dr. Margaret Boland, diocesan associate superintendent of schools, plans to make evangelization a part of the organizational development for CAC in the Trenton Diocese.
“You’re calling the students to their faith, and that’s the constant in their lives,” she said. “That is who we are.”
White asked for feedback on the best characteristics of CAC in the Diocese, and the challenges chapters were facing and how to address them. After almost six years in formation, response to the CAC program was overwhelmingly positive. Facilitators cited examples of the faith being lived out among their Cathletes, witnessing to their faith through prayer and acts of service, participation in causes such as Respect Life, and even inviting opposing teams to join them for prayer on the field.
He also highlighted tying the values of sports and faith together – how the more he studied it, “the more I saw the overlap – how you can become a better Catholic through athletics, and how you can become a better athlete through Catholicism.”
The future of CAC in the Diocese will include expansion into middle and elementary schools, as well as colleges that don’t already have a CAC presence.
During lunch in Notre Dame High School, students heard from Boland, who introduced a question that the diocesan CAC board brought up in May: “How do we share ourselves with the wider community?”
“It’s a gift for me, to get to see all the things you do,” she said. “But the only way we’re going to grow is to make [CAC] more prominent, to let the world know we exist. You are in a living charity, not just service, in CAC.”
To that end, Brittany Wilson, diocesan coordinator of digital and social media, addressed the group about using outlets such as Twitter and Instagram to further CAC exposure.
After a show of hands indicating most of the students used one more of the social media platforms, Wilson introduced the new diocesan CAC Twitter and Instagram handle: @DOTCAC.
“Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, is called to evangelize,” she explained. “Here in the Diocese, we are 1,700 Cathletes strong ... and we would like to get more of your peers involved.”
Wilson suggested the Cathletes begin posting about their schools’ teams and faith-focused moments in their sports using #DOTCAC. Particularly good posts could lead to the Diocese’s re-tweeting and reposting on its own websites and outlets.
“Make sure you share photos and videos that really reflect what it means to be a Catholic Athlete for Christ,” she said, “something that touches on the core values of charity, honesty, humility, meekness, moderation, purity and sportsmanship. And don’t forget to have fun.”
“You’re doing many wonderful things in your school,” Boland said. “We want to get that out there to the whole Diocese ... and this is a way we can do it.”