Annual priests vs. seminarians basketball tourney limited, but not sidelined, by COVID-19

Members of the Phoenix Sons seminarian team join in prayer before the JPII Classic Jan. 25 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Scottsdale. (Catholic Media Ministry)

By Jeff Grant
Arizona Angelus

SCOTTSDALE — The priests of the Diocese of Phoenix who lead their parishes and those studying to join them in that vocation take a time out every year to play basketball and engage in the kind of fellowship that fosters their relationship as partners in ministry. But this year, that gathering took on different look.

Adjutant judicial vicar and priest assistant to the Bishops’ Office Fr. Kevin Grimditch takes a shot during the JPII Classic Jan. 25 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Scottsdale. (Catholic Media Ministry)

The goal of the John Paul II Classic was the same, but the list of health safety concerns posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prompted the diocese the scale back this year’s event.

Instead of an actual game, the priests and seminarians, under the guidance of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and the diocese’s vicar general Fr. Fred Adamson, conducted a skills competition modeled after the event held annually by the National Basketball Association prior to its All-Star Game. The 2020 Skills Contest and the 3-Point Contest allowed participants to match their dribbling, passing and shooting skills while maintaining a safe social distance at all times of at least 6 feet.

“We decided at the end of May, beginning of June,” explained seminarian Gabe Sabado. “This was the best way to do something fun that did not have the contact.”

Sabado, who studied at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary near Denver, is living at the diocese’s Nazareth House Seminary and is a member of St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Surprise.

“We really did our best to maintain the standard guidelines that we have been promoting at Mass,” he said.

The seminarians, who play as the Phoenix Sons, and the priests, competing as the Church Fathers, were paired off for opening rounds of the dribble, pass and shoot portion until there were only two left  —  one from each team  —  to meet for the title, won by Seminarian Thomas Pueyo over vocations director Fr. Paul Sullivan.

Diocesan vocations director and Nazareth House Seminary rector Very Rev. Paul Sullivan (left) bumps elbows with Fr. Vinhson Nguyen, associate vocations director, chaplain of St. John Paul II High School and parochial administrator of Our Lady of Fatima Mission to allow for social distancing during the JPII Classic Jan. 25 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Scottsdale. (Catholic Media Ministry)

That was followed by priests and seminarians launching the ball from various spots beyond the court’s 3-point arc as each contestant was fed the ball by their teammates. That portion was won by Sabado, who easily outscored his rival, diocesan priest, adjutant judicial vicar and priest assistant to the Bishops’ Office Fr. Kevin Grimditch, 11-4.

While the seminarians and priests were able to play, joke and engage in casual conversation away from the sanctuary and the classroom, the one missing component was the crowd. No spectators were permitted inside the gym at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale, so anyone among the faithful or their friends were limited to watching a live stream of the event on YouTube, where replays can still be seen.

“We’re heartbroken we can’t pack the gym,” said local sports-radio personality Doug Franz, who provided play-by-play announcing while Fr. Fernando Camou, vice rector of Nazareth House Seminary and chaplain of Seton High School, supplied color commentary.

“We were trying to find a way to be safe and have an absolutely great time. It was a wild success because we were able to do it all,” said Franz.

The online audience was encouraged to continue to pray for diocesan priests and seminarians.

Seminarians Andrew Geerling (left) and Simon Ortiz bump elbows to allow for social distancing during the JPII Classic Jan. 25 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Scottsdale. (Catholic Media Ministry)

“I would not be here if there weren’t a whole army of people who have prayed and continue to support me through prayers,” Fr. Camou said during the broadcast.

Even without members of the faithful and their friends watching, the priests and seminarians felt blessed by the break from their routines.

“What our diocese and everybody needs right now is a little joy, and this brought that to our hearts and all who tuned in online,” Sabado explained. “It was an opportunity to come together, being cautious, but at the same time, to not be afraid,” he said, recalling the words of the game’s namesake St. John Paul II.

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