Meet the priest who serves as umpire at the U.S. Open

Meet the priest who serves as umpire at the U.S. Open September 3, 2011

The annual tennis match is unfolding just down the road from where I live, and it turns out one of those watching from above is a Catholic priest.

From the New York Times:

So a Catholic priest walks onto a tennis court. Seriously. It happens, for Father Paul Arinze, every day at the United States Open.

Often, Arinze climbs into the chair, as a certified bronze badge umpire. There, he officiates serves, not church services, matches instead of Mass. Below, players cross themselves and pray for victory or take the Lord’s name in vain. They do not know that while God may not be interested in their tennis match, a clergyman is watching from close range.

“Sometimes, I’m tempted to say, ‘You know, you have a Catholic priest sitting here,’ ” Arinze said, reclining on a bench during a break Wednesday. “But it’s O.K. Being a priest, you’re trained to forgive.”

By day, Arinze works as director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison, Wis. At tournaments, he trades his robes for the polo shirts worn by the officials, his altar for the chair. Some of his fellow umpires address him as Father Paul, or F.P., and on Sundays some follow him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

Upon arrival at different tournaments, Arinze first finds the nearest Catholic church. There, his twin passions intersect, again.

They are, Arinze said, more similar than at first glance. In church and on the court, Arinze witnesses the extremes of human emotion, the best events of people’s lives and careers (baptisms and weddings, victories and championships) and also the worst (funerals and losses).

In both instances, there is no one best approach. The basics are the same, but the personalities are different, and thus the approach must be as well. The constant is dealing with people who mostly just want someone — a priest, an umpire — to listen to them, a private confession versus a public one.

While Arinze in no way believes sporting events hold the same importance as many other events in life, he does see similarities, because to the participants, matches often take on oversize importance.

“It’s not one size fits all,” he said. “It’s, O.K., who is this person? How can I reach them? It helps that while they have their perspective on the match, I have the bigger perspective on life beyond.”

Arinze does not pray for particularly unruly players, but he does say a prayer before each match, hoping that it will go smoothly, without incident.

He does not believe God takes a rooting interest in sports. But Arinze sees nothing wrong with players who cross themselves, or pray on the court. If that calms them, he said, so be it.

“I always say God has more important things to do than root for a team or player,” Arinze said. “Because if he did, then everyone would win.”

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