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International tennis tournament unites priests
Recreation is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. This is no different for priests. Since 2012 there has been an annual International Tennis Championship for Priests, which originated in Krakow, Poland. Father Brian Connor is organizing this year’s tournament, which will be held in his home diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, June 28-30.
According to Father Connor, table tennis was popular among Polish priests for decades; this morphed into a tennis tournament in the early 2000s, and the first International Tennis Championship for Priests was held in 2012. Father Connor first encountered this tournament through brother priests from Poland he knew from seminary. They contacted him, knowing he was a tennis player, and invited him to Krakow for the tournament.
“I had always wanted to go to Poland, so I went!” he said. Not performing up to his standards the first year, Father Connor competed again in 2013 only to be defeated in the quarterfinals by a priest from the Philippines. “I felt like I should’ve done better,” Father Connor said. “So the next year, they did it again, and I was all in — I wanted to go back and do better, so I worked on my game for a year, and then I went back and won.”
United in sport
This competitive spirit is part of the fun of the annual tournament. Priests from all over the world come together, and they can get fired up from the competition, but also get good exercise and have unique opportunities for fellowship with their brother priests.
“Even though we don’t speak the same language, on the tennis court we can have a great game and share the fun and intensity,” Father Connor said.
There also is an opportunity to join with other priests in healthy and wholesome activities. “The fraternity of the priesthood has always been important, but in this day and age it seems important to celebrate things we enjoy that are healthy and wholesome and fun,” he said. “That’s kind of what it’s about.”
After a couple of years in Poland, the tournament traveled to the Philippines, then Italy. The organizers finally have succeeded, after years of effort, in convincing Father Connor to host the tournament this year in the Diocese of Lincoln.
Players from all over the world are expected to participate. A number of Polish players are already registered, as well as several from the Philippines, Slovakia, Canada and more.
Promoting the tournament has proven to be a challenge. “It’s hard to promote something like this, even in our day of great technology and communication. But word is getting out there,” Father Connor said.
One challenge the organizers have faced is that a lot of priests simply don’t have the time to keep up with the game and to stay in shape. “Golf is really the main priest sport, in my mind,” said Father Connor.
There is a wide variety of ages among participants, with several brackets: There is an open division; a bracket for 45 years and older; 55 years and older; and in doubles matches, each team must have a combined age of at least 95 years.
When the international priests are hosted in Lincoln, they will be given an all-star treatment. “When I go to Poland, I don’t spend a penny, apart from getting there and getting home,” said Father Connor. “They take care of everything. We’re doing the same thing: Once they are in Lincoln, they’re not going to spend anything on food, transportation or entertainment; they’re going to be taken care of.” Generous benefactors have contributed to allow the visitors to be treated so well.
Father Matthew Eickhoff grew up often playing tennis for fun with family and friends. While he never played competitively, he did take lessons for a few years and has played tennis on occasion ever since. While serving as pastor in Brainard, Nebraska, for 16 years, Father Eickhoff began to play tennis more regularly.
Father Eickhoff was ordained in 1989 for the Diocese of Lincoln, and he currently serves communities near the Kansas and Colorado borders.
Father Eickhoff was invited by Father Connor to join him in Krakow in 2013 for the International Tennis Championship for Priests. He promptly started tennis lessons with a professional in Omaha, who had been a star at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the 1970s — and who grew up across the street from Father Eickhoff.
He was dedicated to preparing for the tournament. “I drove an hour from my parish to Omaha for a 90-minute lesson every week for six months to get myself ready for the 2013 international competition, which was the first and only tennis tournament I’ve ever competed in,” he said.
“Since I’m not a natural athlete, I was happy simply to come home uninjured with my certificate of participation,” Father Eickhoff said. “I achieved my two main goals, which were to have fun and not embarrass myself!”
The tournament was a great experience for Father Eickhoff. “We often say that the priesthood is the greatest fraternity on earth,” he said. “We had instant friends simply by our shared priestly calling.”
The participants shared food and drink with the players from other countries, and used as much of the limited time available to get to know each other.
“Generally, we priests enjoy recreating together because we have an appreciation for the challenges each of us face in our priestly ministry on a daily basis,” he said, “so we know how valuable a break from the work really is and we appreciate being able to refresh our minds, bodies, and souls together.”
|Sports have played an important role in the life of the Church, particularly in the United States, for a long time, such as in sports leagues hosted by Catholic Youth Organization and the many Catholic universities with phenomenal athletic programs. There are several other athletic tournaments and events hosted by the Church, specifically for clergy or religious, in addition to the International Tennis Championship for Priests:
Work, pray, play hard
Similar events are put on at the national and diocesan levels around the world. The Archdiocese of Omaha and Diocese of Lincoln hold a softball competition on Father’s Day; Mundelein Seminary in Chicago hosts a basketball tournament for seminaries; and many dioceses hold priest vs. seminarian basketball games.
“Bishop [Glennon] Flavin, who ordained me, encouraged us priests to ‘work hard, pray hard and play hard’ so as to keep a healthy balance of work, prayer and recreation in our lives,” Father Eickhoff said. “I always thought it was good advice and continue to try to strike that balance. While I don’t get to play as often as I once did, tennis continues to be one piece of the puzzle that helps provide balance in my life,” he said.
“In whatever sports, I can be pretty competitive, but I am still a long way from qualifying for the U.S. Open!” said Father Jeff Shannon, a missionary priest from the Missionaries of Mary Mother of the Poor. Ordained in Ottawa, Canada, in 1997, he now serves on the remote island of Ilin in the Philippines.
At age 30, in 1999, Father Shannon began playing tennis because of his friendship with Father Fernando Suarez, the organizer of the Philippines’ own annual priests’ tennis tournament. Growing up in Canada, Father Shannon loved playing ice hockey, but after being ordained, he was happy to find tennis as an alternative sport.
“Playing tennis is a great way to exercise, first and foremost, especially in a life where the work is often very sedentary,” he said. “Tennis provides an opportunity for priests to be in communion with one another in a more relaxed and edifying way.”
Tennis provides a healthy escape from things and a wonderful way to recreate, he said. “We also feel the elation of winning a match, as well as the pain of suffering defeat, a truly humbling experience to say the least. Ultimately we play in order to have fun, to enjoy the game and to relax with fellow priests looking for an outlet from a heavy sacramental schedule.”
Father Shannon enjoys the annual tournament held in the Philippines, as well as the international tournament. The theme for the Philippines tournament has been “Born to Serve” — a play on the priest’s calling to serve the people of God, and the need to serve in order to play the game.
“We are looking forward to coming to Nebraska this June to compete with other priests from other parts of the world!” Father Shannon said.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.