At the rehearsal for today’s celebration, I promised the confirmands a homily about sports, mentioning my long history as an athlete. Now I have to tell you, only one student laughed, and I think he was a bit embarrassed. I, on the other hand, was pleased that at least one of the students I was confirming was honest!
(My father says that as soon as I had my picture taken in my hockey uniform in grade five, I was finished with the sport and thereafter the jersey was used as a Halloween costume for my siblings.)
Anyway, despite my famous – infamous – lack of athletic ability, it’s been my privilege and pleasure to know three professional athletes in the course of my priesthood.
The first was Jamie Taras of the BC Lions - a wonderful man that I knew at the height of his playing career despite the fact that I don’t know the difference between a touchdown and a field goal.
The second was Trevor Linden, who became a good friend at the height of his hockey career even though I don’t know the difference between icing and offside.
I learned much from these two men - but not as much as I learned from a second BC Lion, whom I certainly didn’t know at the height of his playing career – which came when I was nine years old. His name is Don Vicic.Don Vicic, a parishioner at St. Anthony’s, played for the BC Lions and won the Grey Cup with them in 1964. Before that he played college football with a very successful team, Ohio State University, whose coach was so famous that even I knew his name.
When Don Vicic came to speak to our men’s group last week at what we call the “godly hour” of 6:00 am, his title was “My Three Coaches,” so I prepared to be bored because I wouldn’t know who they were except for his college coach. He surprised me enormously and delighted me when it turned out I knew two of his three coaches. And, in fact, they had nothing to do with sports.
These “coaches” were those he counted as his teachers and heroes. And the first was a parishioner at Christ the Redeemer, with whom I worked before I was a priest and whose funeral I celebrated right here. His name was George O’Leary.
George was a truly gracious and remarkable man who fought in the Pacific and was almost killed three times.
Don greatly admired this business leader – this fellow Catholic. So he went and told George he was preparing to retire. George said, “Don, you need a vision in retirement or you will be dead in three years. You need goals so clear you can see them!”
So, a dozen years ago, Don made these goals: “to grow my spiritual life, my health, my wealth, and my education.” The last of these he did by visiting 125 battlefields from both the first and second World Wars.
That was twelve years ago, and Don says they have been the best years of his life.
To keep my homily short, I will skip the second coach, who was an author and a life skills coach who gave Don some wonderful advice including “avoid negative thoughts” which the author calls “ANTS”. He calls expressing thanks to others an ANT-eater, which is a pretty good image for those of us who try to have an attitude of gratitude.
So far so good: I knew 50% of his coaches and their advice seemed solid.
And then he came to the third. Someone I not only knew but know. Don Vicic told us that his greatest coach and greatest hero was Jesus Christ.
He said, “it took me forty-five years to get there… I never understood the personal relationship with Jesus.” Forty-five years of churchgoing, forty-five years of supporting his parish, forty-five years of good family life, and he hadn’t met Jesus in a way that would fully guide and inspire and direct this fine man who wanted to be better – who wanted life to be fuller.
Often I think whether you’re young or older, we feel that we have a duty to know the Lord or even an obligation, a word I hate. What Don understood was that we have an opportunity, we have a privilege, we have a joy.
I think even the most religious person – and certainly those getting confirmed – has a right to ask, “What’s in it for me? What difference does it make with this Holy Spirit stuff?”
Here’s Don Vicic’s answer, “If I had known Christ personally when I was twenty, I’d have been a better athlete. If I had known Christ personally when I was twenty, I’d have been a better businessman, father and husband.”
This is someone who was a great athlete, a great businessman, a fine father and husband, saying that if he had known Jesus forty-five years earlier he says he would have been better. Specifically, he said that when Jesus coached him after He finally gave Jesus the chance after retirement, the coach said, “You are a son. You are an heir. You are made by God. You are loved by God. You are of infinite value.”
Now this is what God says to you, dear confirmands, this morning. “You are sons and daughters, my sons and daughters. You are made by me, created by me inwardly and outwardly. You are loved by me. You are of infinite value to me and to the world.”
Don concluded his remarks with, “What a coach!” And I would say, what lessons! We can learn them today because they are not difficult, they’re not complicated. And eventually we will be able to say with Don Vicic, “What energy my Catholic faith gives me, allowing me to have a relationship with Christ!”
I am very grateful to Don Vicic, first for allowing me to make his inspiring presentation the basis for my Confirmation homily, and now for graciously permitting me to share his thoughts on my blog. Thank you, Don!