Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Thoughts - Manhood, Football, Fatherhood, and Fire

Photo by Br. Simon Stubbs, O.S.B.
Each year St. Joseph Seminary College and Notre Dame Seminary square off in an epic game of flag football. The former practice the whole of the fall semester while the later takes the idea of practice to the field participating in the Loyola New Orleans University intramural flag football league. Collegiate seminary vs. theologate. Philosophy vs. theology. Kant vs. Ratzinger (or Aquinas vs. Aquinas). This event does not only include a football game but a giant bonfire built log cabin notch style (we are well aware of the dangers of celebratory bonfires from other universities, God rest their souls). I have the distinct privilege of preaching at the mass before the event hits into manly mode with football and pyrotechnics. I thought I would share this for the sake of posterity but also as a ancillary reflection on manhood, fatherhood, and priesthood. There are some inside seminary jokes, but bare with them.


There’s something thoroughly cathartic in building something only to watch it burn down. There is something thoroughly uncathartic about preparing mentally and physically for a football game by building up a habitus of football skills only to be found unsatisfactory on the field through the victory of the opposing team. And, yet, in both of these, building and losing, we learn what it is to be a Christian man and a good father.

            The bonfire itself is a symbol of manhood. It is the culmination of hard work and sheer desire to outdo the height of the previous year. It requires the blood, sweat, and chainsaws of men willing to build an edifice for the sake of its slow destruction by the unpredictable force of fire. This is a seemingly futile undertaking, and yet it is an analogy for us as Christian men called to be a light in the darkness of this world. We have before us, in the bonfire, the pursuit of secular man. He builds a large house full of strong timber and at the pinnacle of the structure of his life all that it is worthy of is its collapse due to arson. It seemed to be a stable structure but under the weight of heat and flame it buckles.

            St. Paul, who we hear about in the first reading, built his house on the Pharisaical interpretation of the Torah. With one question, Christ knocks it down. Paul rebuilds on the foundation of the cross, which seems weak and unable to support the full missionary effort that he undertook. Yet, he arrives to the place of his “destruction” stronger and more stable than the Coliseum. We build our houses not on our own or by sheer will and the work of our hands. No, we build, with Christ, His church. Our future bride is symbolized in the two churches whose dedication we celebrate today, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Peter and Paul built the church on the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone. A father builds a house for his family. A priest builds up the Church one soul at a time knowing the structure and foundation are not designed by him or sustained by him, but rather by Christ, who his our rock.
            Now, as for losing, this, in the eyes of the world, is the epitome of the worthlessness. It is unmanly to lose, especially for us Americans, to lose a football game. The loser feels totally emasculated. With regards to losing, I speak from experience. When it comes to flag football, I’m a loser. I have played in seven bonfire games. I won my last, indeed my only game, in 2003. Six years of losses can be disheartening, but apparently the Lord thought I hadn’t learned the lesson I share with you today. He put me in a parish this fall that had no coach for the middle school flag football team. The eighth graders coerced me to coach. Never did I think that the Bonfire game would actually prepare me for ministry. I coached a team from ages 9 to 13, with varying degrees of knowledge, skill, and natural athleticism, while myself having little knowledge about how to run a practice or design a playbook, or how to deal with a quarterback who is sobbing on the sideline at halftime.  We played five games, and we won none. I had to figure out how I was going to console these kids who worked hard in practice and even showed up to play a game on day with no school.
            Those five games as a whole and the multitude of practices will make them better men. They will realize that despite the hardest we can work; we will not always succeed. As men, we wish to put up the mirage that we stand on firm ground and are perpetual winners, but Christ, inviting Peter to come, shows us, that to be a man you must walk on choppy seas. Our power, our balance, is not solely ours. The true man and the good father is empowered and sustained by the Son who was sent by the Father to become man. Loosing reveals to us competition fails. What I have is nothing. I am merely a breath that passes like a fading shadow, like grass, which springs up in the morning, and by evening withers and fades. Our fatherhood, our manhood is contingent on the fatherhood and manhood of Jesus Christ.
            Bonfire Day, with its game and with its fire, teaches us that we are but mere men. It is by Christ that we gain our strength as we walk on the choppy seas of seminary formation and prepare to be fathers who build the Church through the ministry of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

No comments: