The time is fast approaching. Soon my television screen will be adorned with pastoral images of magnolia blossoms, the sounds of chirping birds and the dulcet tones of golf announcers describing every blade of grass at Augusta National Golf Course. It is the Masters.
The final round, like all final PGA final rounds, is on a Sunday, and it has become a kind of ritual for me to settle into a comfy chair and let the ethereal sounds of golf fill my living room and my senses. It will be a spiritual exercise. It may not be the same one as the one I will perform earlier this same day at Mass, but it will be spiritual nonetheless.
I’m not trying to be clever or cute when I conflate my love of golf with spiritual weightlifting. It might indeed be frivolous to attach such import to a game, but for me, golf will always be associated with one of the most important people in my life and someone who was integral to my faith formation.
Our parents may have been the primary examples of the faith in our family, but Father John was the force of nature who brought light, warmth, and inspiration, and always when we needed it most. He was our dad’s brother, though he was never “Uncle John.” He was once and always simply Fr. John. He inspired my brothers and sisters not through glorious flourishes of rhetoric, but rather with simple words and perfectly timed actions.
Fr. John was the “go to” guy when our dad was having trouble with one of his children and he wasn’t sure what to do. Fr. John always seemed to know. To him, helping someone out of a spiritual or mental slump was always going to include additional reliance on the Blessed Mother in the form of the Rosary, and the placing of either a paint brush or a golf club in the hands of the person who needed the boost.
For me, it was a golf club. I was having a bit of a midlife crisis (I was 19 at the time), and as my dad wasn’t quite sure how to handle it, he reached out to Fr. John. The “therapy” would be me playing golf with him once a week on his day off.
Playing golf with Father John meant stepping outside of my self-centeredness. It meant learning to deal with success and failure and see them as, to steal from Kipling, the imposters they both were. It taught me that I was going to fail the day we played golf and I was going to fail the next week when we played golf, but it didn’t matter if I put the ball back down and hit it again. Maybe not the stuff of a Jesuit’s doctorate dissertation, but Fr. John’s patience and his willingness to be present to me whenever and however necessary helped me understand how God, in a somewhat broader field than a golf course, does the same.
If there was a golf tournament on TV when Father John would come over for Sunday dinner, my dad would tune it in. It became the background music for many a gathering until dinner was served and the TV turned off.
I had heard stories from my dad how much Fr. John loved golf and what a great golfer he was in his prime. Sadly, by the time I was old enough to need his special guidance, Father John was a lion in winter. His body, racked with arthritis, was betraying him, but he could still hit it down the middle and use colorful language to comment on the errant shots he might hit.
Golf was just a tool he used for the service of his real charism — the gift of being the kind of person you wanted to be close to, the kind of faith-filled man that just being in his orbit made you better, the kind of man whose love of God, his church and his Blessed Mother you wanted to emulate. You could fill several churches with family members, parishioners, and acquaintances who would all testify to the same power he unleashed during his five decades of priesthood.
Whether watching golf on television or out on a golf course learning to treat success and failure with equanimity, I think of Fr. John. I say a prayer for him and a prayer of intercession to him. And when this year’s Masters comes, I will again think about all the lives he touched with grace and faith, and I will thank God I was fortunate enough to be numbered among them.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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