Faith at the Final Four

A banner outside St. Mary’s Basilica across the street from the Phoenix Convention Center welcomes visitors for the Final Four. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

The life of the Church will factor into Final Four festivities in Phoenix this weekend.

First, there’s Jesuit Father Frank Case tending to the spiritual needs of the players. It’s his third season as chaplain to Gonzaga University’s basketball team. Fr. Case said his role is simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate the whole person educationally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

“It’s largely a role of presence,” Fr. Case said from his Phoenix hotel.

Coaches prepare the players emotionally for each game. The priest covers them spiritually.

“I pray quietly for them and encourage them whey they come off the court,” Fr. Case said. The players also give him high-fives when they join him on the sideline.

“They make it clear they appreciate having me there,” Fr. Case said.

Another Jesuit priest, Fr. Stephen Hess, is prepared to tend to the spiritual needs of fans. Fr. Hess, a Gonzaga alum himself and chaplain to other graduates, is presiding over a 10 a.m. liturgy at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown April 2. It’s standard procedure to offer Masses at a hotel when the team and a large fan base is on the road. Gonzaga lost its first chance at the Final Four in 2015 in the last five minutes of the Elite Eight.

“Alumni are going to be coming in from all over the place,” said Cynthia Reyes Methvin, president of Gonzaga’s 10-year-old Phoenix alumni chapter. There are more than 800 alumni in the Phoenix area alone plus the untold number flying in from places like Spokane, Portland, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Priests serving locally are ready to assist, too, by welcoming Final Four fans to regularly scheduled Masses at nearby St. Mary’s Basilica and St. Anthony Parish. St. Mary’s especially is used to an array of visitors. It is the area’s oldest Catholic church, sits in the heart of downtown, is a Phoenix “Point of Pride” and has a special kneeler marking the place where St. John Paul II once prayed.

Visitors find the contrast between Phoenix’s modern, urban environment and the Franciscan church refreshing.

“They are very charmed to find this place,” Jerome Doris, parish manager, said. “It’s beautiful, but not overwhelmingly so.”

Mass is at 11 a.m. at St. Mary’s Basilica. Punctuality will be a priority. Rolling street closures in front of the basilica’s parking garage will allow Massgoers and NCAA fans to take turns having possession of the court — or rather, Fifth Street between Monroe and Van Buren.

The Final Four Dribble for kids is also at 11 a.m. The free — and sold out — event has kids dribbling a good eight blocks through downtown including right past St. Mary’s parking garage.

“It’s good to see life around here,” Doris said, noting that it’s all part of the process of building up the larger community.

Via Assisi Gift Shop, located on the basilica’s ground floor, is maintaining regular hours this weekend and will likely see additional Final Four fans. At least one already visited March 29. More will likely flow in during the Final Four Fan Fest March 31-April 1 at the Phoenix Convention Center, which sits across the street from St. Mary’s Basilica. A limited number of fans will be able to park in St. Mary’s underground garage for a small fee. Proceeds support the basilica’s general fund.

Fans will certainly come together over the game itself at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

“I’ve been working my way down lower and lower in the stadium,” said Kevin Hickey, a member of Gonzaga’s board of regents the last six years, parent of an alumna and a local Catholic. He has already made six or seven trades. “Everybody knows I’m a bit of a lunatic when it comes to watching the game.”

He’s taking one person down low with him with other relatives and friends likely trading off seat time. Hickey will also spend the weekend hosting 18 people in his house plus staging a university event there for Gonzaga deans.

The rest of Zag Nation will cheer on the Bulldogs from a viewing party at McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon near the stadium in Glendale. Methvin, also a local Catholic who earned an undergraduate degree from Gonzaga in 1993 and a master’s in 2001, planned to be at the game and the service project, but a family emergency took her to the true Zag Nation instead to care for an aging father.

“People are saying it’s going to be like a ghost town,” Methvin told The Catholic Sun from Spokane.

Even if Washingtonians don’t have an affiliation with the university, she said they know how involved students are in the community. The Phoenix area sees the same thing on a quarterly basis with Gonzaga alumni and affiliates. The Phoenix alumni chapter is hosting a street cleanup at the KROC Corps Community Center April 2.

Win or lose for the Bulldogs, Final Four weekend will be a win for the community. Hickey hopes Gonzaga will go two for two when it comes to a Catholic university winning the NCAA tournament. Score wise, Villanova University, an Augustinian campus, delivered a historic win in 2016.

***UPDATE APRIL 4***

Check out who else was officially part of the Madness.