The world we live in is not an easy one for many folks.
Each person and family has its own problems to face and obstacles to overcome. Each struggle is a personal one.
For many Catholics and Ignatians, one challenge is this: 'During this quarantine, how do we avoid distancing from God while we're physically away from the Church that brings us together as a family?'
For Saint Ignatius Athletics, chaplains Pat Valletta '05, Drew Vilinsky '97, Bill Head '60, Ed DeVenney and Tony Krzmarzick have been leading the charge in ensuring that Wildcats student-athletes have the tools to answer this question and other important ones.
Vilinsky, the director of sports chaplaincy, designed the program during normal times several years ago. A key aspect of the program is a regular meeting with the team. Called "chapel talks," these gatherings in the St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel are aimed at helping student-athletes to see how sports are part of a larger picture at Saint Ignatius. Athletics can be a vehicle for using our gifts for the Greater Glory of God (AMDG) and for helping others to see God.
Each chaplain takes a different approach, but all have the same goal.
"The goal is to tie faith into sports," says Valletta, the lacrosse chaplain. "How do we continue to keep our athletes tied into what's happening in the Church? We want to talk about what's happening on Sunday in the Gospel."
That's a lofty goal for normal times. So, how do you accomplish this ambition during a time of social distancing and no gatherings?
Zoom is one critically important tool for Saint Ignatius.
For many outside of the business or education worlds, you might not know about Zoom. But for every student, teacher, and administrator, the previously unknown virtual meeting tool has become a part of daily life. Through Zoom, many classes meet weekly or daily, teams talk regularly, and the team chaplains continue chapel talks.
Not long after the shutdown started, Pat Valletta first hatched the idea to utilize Zoom for chapel talks.
Valletta is also heavily involved with the Christian Action Team, which quickly used Zoom to host meetings. So, Valletta decided to transition his chapel talks to virtual meetings.
"I was thinking of ways to keep the guys engaged," said Valletta. "The virtual CAT meeting was a good success, so that got me thinking. What else could I do? Could I do this with the lacrosse team?"
Valletta consulted both Vilinsky and the lacrosse coaching staff. All parties involved thought it was a great idea, so Valletta went to work in planning a weekly Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoons.
In the first chapel talk, with every team member present, Valletta addressed how much the situation, well, sucks. The 2020 season was supposed to be the Wildcats' year. The Lax Cats boasted a senior-laden squad with a once-in-a-generation class including stars Michael Boehm, Connor Cmiel, Charlie Minerd, Jack Welcsh, Merick Hartley, Greg Langermeier, and others.
"I talked about how this sucks. With that in mind, how can we pour ourselves into something but be detached from the results?" Valletta asked. "How we can we be not be upset with the result, whatever the result is?"
Following the opening chatter, Valletta will talk about the past Sunday's Gospel, and how it relates to today's situation and the team. Particularly during the Lenten season, Valletta showed the Wildcats how the Gospel teaches us about Jesus and his sacrifice for us.
With the Gospels in mind, Valletta will ask a question of the group, such as, "What are you struggling with the season on hold? What fruit can that bear going forward?"
Valletta will then set up breakout rooms. He'll divide the team into groups on Zoom, and each group will talk about the question with each other, much like they might do in the chapel. Valletta will go between the groups and check in, seeing if they need any help answering the questions.
After about 10 minutes, Valletta will re-gather the Wildcats. Each guy or one person from each breakout room will give a recap of what was said.
Many deep reflections often flow out of these Wildcats. In the midst of losing a promising season, the seniors have seen hope in the darkness, as well as the bigger picture.
In the process, Valletta has become quite popular with the team. He's been affectionately dubbed "Chap V," becoming another member of the lacrosse family.
"The Zoom chapel talks have been a great way to continue to grow our individual faiths and our faith as a team, especially during these trying times," said senior Charlie Minerd. "It is nice to have something consistent to come back to each week especially since regular masses are canceled. Chap V’s interpretations of the readings give us the opportunity to further our relationship with God while further creating a sense of family between teammates."
Valletta has been pleased with the success of the program so far, as we all strive to make the lives of our seniors a little bit better as they have seasons and senior traditions ripped away.
"One of my biggest goals is to find a way to help the seniors process all of this. They were looking forward to the season so much," Valletta says. "Some guys will never play again. Through this, we need to make sure that faith is part of everything we do. It's not just playing lacrosse, or performing in the musical, or going to class, this is all part of a bigger picture. During the Lenten season, and afterwards, our focus should be on our faith. Our guys are pretty thoughtful. For the most part, they're taking it seriously. They offer good responses and thoughts."
Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick '88 has noticed Valletta's great efforts, as have parents and coaches.
"The chaplaincy program has been a huge success, and it's because of people like Pat," says Fitzpatrick. "He becomes part of the coaching staff and a kid's connection to that particular sport. It's not always sport-specific, but it's about them growing as young men. The coaches allowing him in is huge, and they work to be on the same page so that the message Pat gives is in line with what is happening during practice and games.
"The fact that Pat is continuing the chapel talks even though the season is over says so much about him. Pat takes on the responsibility of taking care of these kids no matter what's going on, and he cares deeply about them and their development. I'm so proud that we have selfless people like him to mold and mentor these guys through what is such a difficult time. What he is doing is so important, and will these young men now and down the road. You can't ask for a better person to work with our young men."
Other chaplains have also been hard at work during these times.
Tony Krzmarzick, a campus minister, has also been hosting Zoom chapel talks with the tennis program. Vilinsky has been keeping in touch weekly with the rugby team, as well. Bill Head has also been active with Saint Ignatius Crew. Each week, he will give out a reflection for each rower to ponder and then pen a response. Head also attends the program's weekly Zoom meetings. DeVenney has a similar routine with the volleyball team.
The work goes beyond sports. De'Shaun Adair '14 of the Welsh Academy sends out weekly reflection questions to the chorus every week, and also works individually with students. Campus minister James Luisi is doing the same for students in the spring musical.
And the work will continue and grow once the quarantine eventually ends and school resumes. The chaplaincy program has plans to expand and grow.
One area of growth will be chapel talks for parents. Head hosted one session for parents, and Valletta would like to do the same, with a series of chats before games.
"With the chapel talks, do the parents know what happens in these, or what the goal is? I want to give them an idea, so they can have conversations with their kids," Valletta said. "I want to give the parent context as to what is happening."
Captains training and prayer cards are two more areas that will continue and expand. Because even when there are sports to play, winning a state championship is only one-half of the coin. The other half of the coin is getting to know Jesus Christ more deeply.
Last season, Valletta helped the team create prayer cards. The captains gathered to write and craft them. Last year's Wirtz Award Winner, Nate Conry '19, helped to play an important role in the process. Other teams also do this, as it's a great way to focus prayer and help to see God in our athletic and artistic efforts.
And before the start of this season, Valletta helped to train the captains. Of course, every sport and every team has captains. Whatever team you play for, captains play an important leadership role. At Saint Ignatius, captains certainly play a leadership role, but their responsibilities extend further to stewardship, guidance, and faith formation.
So, Valletta hosted three 7:30 am meetings to check in with the captains. During these sessions, he hopes to show them how to lead and find themselves spiritually.
"Our captains are leaders, so the team will go as they go," Valletta said. "Other guys look to them. If we can form those guys to be good leaders and be good representatives of the team, they can show other guys the right way to do things. My goal is to get them focused spiritually, and then to get their buy-in, so others will buy-in. That way, they can put a good stamp on the season."
As he's worked with Valletta, Vilinsky has grown in respect and admiration for him.
"The athletes want to be with Pat. They see the value in it," Vilinsky said. "The captains' meetings are an example of Pat's dedication. He doesn't have to be there at 7:30 am. He's coming in early just to be with them, and that's phenomenal. It is completely and totally within the character and work ethic of Pat to continue to minister to his kids in this environment. He finds personal ways to connect and bring the Gospel into their situation."
As Vilinsky avows, Saint Ignatius is fortunate to have Valletta.
“Pat is an impressive Ignatian man,” says Vilinsky. “He’s leading others to find God in all things and to strive for the Greater Glory of God. Pat is living it out, providing an example of an Ignatian and Catholic man to our young men. Pat is part of the team, and the coaches consider him part of the staff. He works so hard to build and prepare his talk beforehand, and also meets with guys 1-on-1. Pat always goes above and beyond."