He had a courtside seat to a historic college basketball game, but Fr. Rob Hagan has actually witnessed many games over the years — and more importantly, has ministered to many players.
He’s the basketball team chaplain at Villanova University. “The whole reason I’m here is because I’m an Augustinian priest,” he told CNA in an interview, noting the university’s Augustinian roots.
“I owe so much of everything that’s happened in my life to the Augustinians, and that foundation that started with me as a student here at Villanova, myself.”
Fr. Hagan graduated from Villanova in 1987. He’s been the basketball team chaplain since 2004, and also serves as an associate athletic director at the school, overseeing compliance with the National Collegiate Athletics Association as well as sports medicine and health and safety.
During the recent NCAA men’s basketball tournament, an animated Fr. Hagan could be seen during Villanova games encouraging the team from the end of the bench. He got a front-row seat to Kris Jenkins’ historic three-point shot to win the championship game at the end, the first title-winning buzzer-beater in over 30 years.
He admitted his courtside seat was a big perk of his chaplaincy, as well as “the thrill of being with them (the team) during such an exciting journey” during the March tournament. However, his work — and his story — runs far deeper than a basketball game.
After his graduation from Villanova, he went to law school. Along the way, he considered a vocation to become an Augustinian priest despite misconstrued notions of what a vocation looked like.
“I kind of had this understanding of priesthood as someone who was kind of in church praying 24/7,” he continued, but then realized that many Augustinians were active chaplains in hospitals, schools, mission work, finance, and other areas.
“A lot of people talk about the notion of 'call,' as if St. Paul got knocked off his horse, and Moses saw the Burning Bush,” he added. His own calling turned out to be “not as radical as you might think.”
“And so over time, it just began to speak more and more to my heart,” he continued, and found that he actually used his gifts as a lawyer in the ministry.
“Meeting with people, building relationships, walking with them through difficult moments in their life and helping them see and find the light in the darkness is very much what lawyers do,” he noted
During his formation in seminary, he spent one year helping at a Staten Island parish only a few miles from Lower Manhattan — which happened to be during the 9/11 attacks.
“I had the incredible experience of dealing with people in loss and tragedy as our country kind of tried to heal from that incredible wound.”
The experience aided him later on as a priest he said.
After the 2003-04 basketball season, the long-time Villanova basketball chaplain retired, and Coach Jay Wright invited Fr. Hagan to take his place. He’s been the basketball chaplain for 12 years now.
Sports is “a wonderful metaphor for life,” he explained. “When you’re dealing with wins and losses and getting up when you’re down, and the value of teamwork and doing things together, and overcoming mistakes and hardship — there’s a lot of common ground between sport and spirituality.”
And in his ministry, he “inevitably” ends up in deep conversations “about the value of having a relationship with God, and the wisdom that comes from that, and the strength that comes from that, and the grace that comes from that,” he added.
However, he listens first before preaching. “As much as people like to think that I’m teaching and preaching to them, I’m doing more listening, and I listen to them,” he said. “And I get a sense of maybe what’s going on in their head and their heart.”
The “core values” of Villanova University are truth, unity, and love, he said, and these “are going to penetrate everything we do.”
These values surface in his daily ministry, when “you’re constantly building relationships, you’re constantly looking for ways to work together,” he said. This champion basketball team was built on that foundation, he said, on brotherhood and humility.
For example, during the middle of the season one of the players found out that his godfather had just died. His teammates were brothers to him, Fr. Hagan said. “These big tough strong guys were shedding real tears together for their friend who lost a close family member,” he said. “They were there for each other.”
Along with brotherhood, humility was actually key to the team’s championship run, Fr. Hagan explained. Every player was “willing to sacrifice a piece of themselves, whether it might be playing time, points, minutes, popularity, attention, adulation.”
There’s a saying that “it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one’s concerned about who gets the credit,” he noted. “And these young men really exemplified that.”
The values don’t automatically translate into championship trophies, but the team’s focus is on something greater than awards, he said. “Whether we lose or we win, we don’t want that alone to define us and who we are. But rather, how we cared and played for each other.”
Relationships being more important than trophies “is a counter-cultural message,” he admitted. “TV highlights the one who makes the dunk, who scores all the points, and who signs the big contract,” but “what lies beneath that are all the intangible things that often go unnoticed that are really what’s most important.”
Humility, brotherhood — it’s an example for everyone. “What a great message for others, whether you’re in a family, in a marriage, running a business, working in a school — these are universal values,” he said.