PHOENIX — They were in front of their fans again, and there was a lot of adoration from the crowd.
The Diocese of Phoenix priests and seminarians, who face off against each other annually for a fun-filled evening of basketball, met again on the hardwood Aug. 6. This year, as it resumed with fans in attendance, enthusiasm was high among players and spectators alike.
Named for St. John Paul II, the JP2 Classic has been played every year since 2015. Last year, however, organizers considered calling it off before deciding to hold the game in an empty gym, live streamed to an online audience.
“The virtual thing was fun, but it just wasn’t the same,” said Fr. Ian Wintering, a diocesan priest and parochial vicar at San Francisco de Asís Parish in Flagstaff. “I’m excited to be playing again in front of people.”
The event sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. Some 350 people watched at Xavier College Preparatory gym as the priests, the Church Fathers, squared off against the seminarians, known as the Phoenix Sons.
“It’s really nice,” said Jose Lam, who is currently at Nazareth House Seminary House of Formation in Phoenix. “Especially having the families here, meeting my brother seminarians and the priests in charge of our formation or good models for us.”
Prior to tipoff, a group of seminarians treated the crowd to smooth harmonies in a presentation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
On the hardwood, the students of the sanctuary proved to be well-schooled.
After trading early baskets, the seminarians dominated a large chunk of the first half, opening a double-digit lead. The Church Fathers roared back, holding the Sons without a basket for several minutes, eventually taking a one-point lead early in the second quarter.
With about 5 and a half minutes to go, the Fathers were still up. But the Sons had the goods in the end, overtaking the Fathers for a 30-25 victory and claiming the mantle of JP2 Classic champs for another year.
Still, it was not about who won but the atmosphere of the game itself, allowing fans to cheer their favorite players and for participants to enjoy and build camaraderie. It was also a chance for young men in the crowd to see priests in a role many are unaccustomed to, making for more natural conversations later as they consider a vocation.
“It’s a different dynamic,” said Michael Seybert, 15, of Gilbert. A parishioner of St. Mary Magdalene, Seybert attended the game with his parents Zack and Tiffany, and 10-year-old brother, Matthew. Michael is considering the priesthood and was scheduled to attend a dinner the following evening with the priests and seminarians and other young men. He said an event like this offers a new perspective.
“You get to know them on a different level. You get to develop that friendship, someone who you can talk to,” he said.
“For me, the biggest thing is all the priests and seminarians coming together,” said Fr. Wintering. “It is not very often we can all come together in one event like this, especially the priests. We tend to be so busy doing priestly things. It is always special to build that fraternity of the priesthood. It also is really cool to see how many people come out.”
“There is a great brotherhood here,” echoed seminarian Jose Munoz, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena in Phoenix. “The outside world doesn’t get to see much of the joy the seminarians share. This game is a way to experience that.”
“There is nothing like seeing the crowd and the love people have for their Catholic priests and seminarians,” said Fr. Chad King, pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Cave Creek.
“They are enjoying it as people, not laity-to-priest but person-to-person. We serve the Church in different ways. Each person is just as important as the other. We all serve the Lord however we are called,” he said. “The game helps the audience to see themselves on a level with priests they may not always be used to.”