Catholic evangelists shared in the joy of NCAA basketball fans as they gathered in downtown Phoenix from April 5-8 for the Men’s Final Four Fan Festival.

College students, families and hardcore sports fans exuded excitement as they hustled into the Phoenix Convention Center. Standing outside St. Mary’s Basilica were specially trained evangelists from the Diocese of Phoenix who radiated a heightened form of happiness — the Easter joy of the risen Lord Jesus.

As fans looked forward to celebrity athlete appearances and autograph signings, the evangelists proclaimed an elevated invitation — a personal encounter with the risen Christ who not only desires to meet them but to offer his very life for them.

Fr. Aaron Qureshi, associate director and parochial vicar of All Saints Newman Center at Arizona State University, sat behind a portable confessional waiting to give the gift of Christ to anyone who approached.

“This has been a great opportunity,” Fr. Qureshi said. “So often as priests we’re in our parish waiting for people to come to us. This is a chance for us to go out to the people and encounter our world that is hurting — to bring the healing of God into their lives. This is a posture that we as Catholics need to [increasingly] embrace.”

He had a two-hour shift — another priest was scheduled to rotate in after. At times there was a line of people, waiting either to go to confession or entrust to him their prayer intentions. Even those without religious faith know something about a priest and many approached in curiosity to have a spiritual word with him.

“I’ve had some penitents coming for confession kneeling here on the sidewalk. It is an act of faith on their part that radiates outwards to the rest of the people that are walking by,” continued Qureshi.

“My own presence here as well as that of our volunteer evangelists is a sign of our conviction in the resurrection of Jesus Christ — it changes our lives, and we want other people to know about it. The NCAA has its Final Four but we as Catholics have our final four too — death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell. This is a tournament that we want to win. At the end of the day, it’s the only game that really matters.”

In the First Letter of Saint John, John the Apostle writes, “The victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Sign up for the free weekly newsletter from The Catholic Sun.

Estrella Reyes experienced firsthand the triumphant ways of God whose plans always surpass our own. She had made the long trip from Maricopa to Phoenix with her mother and children for the Final Four Fan Festival. A twist along the way proved to be Christ’s invitation to discover him in the unexpected.

“I had [been promised] tickets from my work for the Final Four Fan Fest. [When we arrived], I wasn’t able to collect them because they had been taken,” said Reyes.

Disappointed by their bad luck, but still trying to make the most of the day, the family began to explore the downtown area.

“We saw Father outside [hearing] confessions. We saw the tent where they were offering prayer and we said, ‘this is where we are supposed to be!’”

While her children played basketball at a kid-sized hoop set up next to the Diocese of Phoenix tent, Estrella and her mother Elizabeth received the sacrament of reconciliation.

Her oldest daughter could be seen strolling on the sidewalk, examining her conscience as she awaited her turn.

“It’s special when you get to go to confession and receive [the Holy Eucharist] in the same time frame,” Reyes said after learning about the Saturday 5 p.m. Vigil Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica. The family decided to attend both this Mass and part of the all-night eucharistic adoration that followed. That evening, Elizabeth was seen leaving the basilica in tears of gratitude, amazed at how the Lord had turned the tides of their day to run toward his greater designs.

The evangelization team led by Joyce Coronel, Evangelization and Sacramental Life manager for the Diocese of Phoenix, absorbed the joy of the crowds, and exalted it with the Gospel proclamation. They declared the presence of the Paschal Mystery in all things — even basketball.

“We’ve had some really powerful conversations with people,” Coronel said. “We’ve spoken with a few people who are trying to get clean and sober — we’ve prayed for them for freedom in Christ… and explained the peace that you have when your soul is in a state of grace.”

“I invited one gentleman to go to confession and he said, ‘I don’t think so. I am Catholic but I know I can’t go to confession because I’m not ready to change.’ We talked about the cost of discipleship.”

Life is very uncertain — we must be ready spiritually for our own final four, our own endgame. We can be people who exercise every day, take vitamins and eat organic food but still, so many things are not in our control. As they handed out blessed rosaries and crosses, volunteers stressed by their joy that the most essential “game plan” is to be in a state of grace — to be in friendship with Christ.

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is known to have said: “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Volunteer evangelists, smiling and sharing the love of Jesus, had this goal in mind.

“We want to be that welcoming presence and tell people that Jesus came into the world not to condemn it but to save it,” Coronel said. “We have been giving out a prayer card that says, ‘Come on in!’ That’s Jesus: He says, ‘my heart is right here’. Just like He called Zacchaeus up in the tree and Matthew right at the tax table — wherever you are in your life, Jesus is calling you to himself.”

This marked the third street evangelization effort in downtown Phoenix spearheaded by Coronel and her volunteers. Her team had a presence during the Super Bowl hosted by Phoenix in February in 2023 and again during the World Series this past fall.

Link to Facebook Photo Gallery