BOSTON — The process of becoming a priest is more than prayer, study, and reflection — at least it is for a handful of seminarians who, under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Boston, took to the basketball court to grow in their understanding of vocation and brotherhood.
A recently released documentary, “Souls in the Game” offers a glimpse into the lives of some 15 students who are part of the basketball team at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, a neighborhood in Boston.
“Souls in the Game” was co-produced by the seminary and the archdiocese, and in a 30-minute runtime, follows the hardwood exploits of the seminarians leading up to and during a yearly national tournament: the DeSales Invitational, which was held this past February in Chicago.
The St. John’s Seminary squad lost in the tournament, but the documentary spotlighted the significance of fraternity and comradery during seminary formation, and showed how there can be more to the path to a religious life than the study of theology and philosophy.
Among the seminarians featured prominently in the documentary was Father Peter Schirripa, who at the time was in his final year of formation and serving as a transitional deacon.
Before joining the priesthood, the Lexington, Massachusetts, native was a public school teacher. But he was drawn to join the clergy after he was asked to pray on behalf of a colleague whose loved one was critically injured and hospitalized. After applying for, being accepted, and starting courses at St. John’s Seminary, Schirripa was pleased to learn that he could keep his love of basketball alive while pursuing a life as a priest.
“Many people, including me, have this fear that you’re going to become a priest and give up who you are and everything you love,” Father Schirripa said. “And you make sacrifices, but God gives it back to you a hundredfold.”
Father Schirripa, 30, was the team captain at St. John’s Seminary when the documentary was filmed earlier this year, and felt there was a deeper story about the team that needed to be told. He partnered with Coach Patrick Nee and Father Eric Cadin, the director of the office of vocations in the Archdiocese of Boston, to approach film producer Ann Gennaro. Gennaro’s role as content and communications specialist for the Boston archdiocese made her an ideal fit to direct the documentary.
Gennaro, 34, brought a valuable perspective to the project; she played basketball in high school, and while in college, joined the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) ministry. “Sports have always had a spiritual parallel in my life,” she said.
In filming the documentary, Gennaro contrasted scenes of serene moments of prayer with those of hoops practices and tournament games, to highlight seminary study is not merely relaxed reflection.
“Our lives, once we enter our vocation, is not one of quiet, contemplative, peaceful prayer. Rather, we are constantly engaged in a spiritual battle,” she explained.
The documentary’s official release, Nov. 6, is aligned with National Vocation Awareness Week, a period dedicated to promoting vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) began the weeklong celebration in 1976, and it is a time where interest in vocations is cultivated.
Father Schirripa said he was initially apprehensive about being alone if he pursued a priestly vocation. That fear soon faded, however, once he began bonding with his fellow seminary students, some of whom became his teammates.
“There’s a communal aspect to our salvation that is just so essential, and that’s the same as when a man prepares to become a priest,” Father Schirripa said.
Since being ordained in May, Father Schirripa has gone on to become the parochial vicar at Gate of Heaven-St. Brigid Parish in South Boston — “the heart of the city,” as he describes it.
The team, founded in May 2017, continues on without him. Deacon Marcelo Ferrari, who was featured in the documentary and is now in his final year of seminary, played with Father Schirripa for four years, and is still waking up at 5 a.m. to practice his skills on the court before heading to chapel.
“It’s definitely about basketball, but it has less to do with basketball than we originally realized,” Deacon Ferrari, 27, said. “It has more to do with the fraternity we are building and the sacrifice that we are offering.”