Story by Reagan Scott
(SNR) - On Sunday June 30 the atmosphere at Genesis Racquet Club in Lincoln could only be described as jovial. Religious and lay spectators cheered as players fought for victory in the final matches of the International Tennis Tournament for Priests.
The event, which took place in Lincoln June 28-30, had 44 priest participants and one seminarian from nine countries of origin: Argentina, Burma, Canada, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Poland, Slovakia and the United States. Ages ranged from 21 to 76.
The participants for the Diocese of Lincoln included the organizer of the event, Father Brian Connor, who is pastor of North American Martyrs Parish in Lincoln, along with Father Thomas MacLean; Father Matthew Eickhoff; Father Steven Mills and seminarian Scotty Sullivan.
The event was a way for participating priests to build fellowship with one another and share a common passion.
“Tennis players have a love for their game, and we have commonality in the priesthood,” Father Connor said.
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Father Eickhoff, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Benkelman and St. Joseph Parish in Stratton, said his favorite part of the tournament was definitely the priestly fraternity.
He added, “The international makeup of the Catholic Church is very evident, and the comraderie is second to none.”
Diann Kroos of North American Martyrs Parish was one of the many volunteers who helped make the event a success. She said that now that the tournament is over, she misses the love that was shared both on and off the tennis courts by the priests as competitors and friends.
“…There was an excitement of being together surrounded by brotherly love,” Kroos said. “They had a carefree joy to them that we don’t always get to see as they can be so busy with their priestly duties. Their joy and excitement was contagious.”
Father Connor said he loved that the tournament allowed him and other participants to meet their brother priests from around the world and shared his amazement that two priests who traveled from the Philippines to play met for the first time in Lincoln.
In addition to matches played at Genesis Racquet Club and Pius X High School, visitors had the chance to visit some of Nebraska’s most popular destinations including Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the State Capitol Building and Memorial Stadium.
Father Jublas “Joe” Nolasco, a priest from Toronto, enjoyed seeing some of these sites, and even shared that he’d had the opportunity to try Runza, a Nebraska staple, during his visit. Father Nolasco has been playing tennis since he was 14 and he won the open singles division of the tournament.
Father Nolasco was excited at the prospect of growing in fellowship with other priests from around the world and getting to know more about the Lincoln Diocese.
“I’d heard of Lincoln as a good, Catholic community with a very strong Catholic identity,” he said.
Father Nolasco said he was looking forward to future opportunities to play in the tournament.
“I see myself doing it again,” he said, “because the great camaraderie of the priests was just phenomenal.”
The tournament dates back to 1996 when Polish priests played one another in Warsaw, Poland. It built momentum after that, and would eventually become an international tournament, open to priests from around the world.
In 2012, Father Connor, the organizer for this year’s tournament, was invited to compete in Poland by Father Dariusz Narewski, a classmate of his from St. Joseph Seminary in New York and a priest for the Lomza Diocese in Northeast Poland.
Father Connor played in the tournament that year alongside Father Thomas MacLean, and went to compete in Poland again in 2013 with Father Matthew Eickhoff. Last year, he played in the tournament a third time, again with Father MacLean.
It was Father Connor who suggested bringing the tournament to Lincoln, and he said he was grateful to everyone who made the event a reality including Bishop James Conley, who is “a great advocate for fraternity and recreation.”
Father Narewski traveled to the United States for this year’s tournament and said he enjoyed getting to see familiar faces and meet new people.
“Most of [the priests], we meet every year or every two years. It’s always great pleasure to see familiar faces even if we don’t know their names. For me it was very personal because I was good friends with Brian all through the seminary, so I just wanted to see him and to get to know his family.”
Next year’s tournament will take place in Poland, and in the Philippines the following year. Father Connor said that he would like to participate.
For the priests participating, future tournaments will serve as a way to see familiar faces, and meet more of their brother priests, who share both a love for their ministry as well as the game of tennis.