Skip to comments.SIGNAL CALLING - UB quarterback foregoes family and career to train for priesthood in Rome
Posted on 07/04/2005 3:21:18 PM PDT by NYer
Joe Freedy, right, and fellow seminarian were in St. Peter's Square when Benedict XVI was elected pope.
The summer before his senior season, Joe Freedy approached his personal line of scrimmage and surveyed the field. The University at Buffalo quarterback knew the options at his disposal.
Freedy peered to his right and found comfort that a primary route was starting a family with the girlfriend everyone adored. He glanced to his left and recognized he could use his communications degree for a possible career in sales.
He then swallowed hard and made one of the most momentous audibles a man could imagine. He checked off the possibility of a wife and children, checked off on the sales gig, checked off on a life virtually everyone else in the world would consider normal.
Freedy, the starting quarterback of a Division I football team and big man on campus, decided to become a priest.
"It was a huge tug on my heart," Freedy said, "but the Lord was calling me to this."
Freedy is studying at the epicenter of an extraordinary time in the Roman Catholic Church. Since graduating from UB in 2002 as one of the school's top all-time passers, he received his master's degree in philosophy from Duquesne and last August was assigned to the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.
He twice met Pope John Paul II and was in Rome for the pontiff's death and stirring funeral.
The 26-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh also saw the white smoke billow and stood beneath the window when Pope Benedict XVI gave his first papal blessing. Freedy on Wednesday served Benedict XVI during the Solemn Mass of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica.
Freedy, speaking from Rome, said his experience so far "is way better than any sports high." And that's not considering the inadvertent laughter he caused when he stole a rosary from Pope John Paul II. More on that later.
When Freedy talks to his friends and family, he sometimes struggles to explain the elation that has come from his decision.
But religious wonder long has resided within the youngest of Hank and Judy Freedy's five children. Joe was reciting the rosary by the time he was 2 and couldn't be distracted from it - not even to eat - until he was through.
"He has been there at an historical time," Judy Freedy said. "He has told me, "If I never had another thing in my life, I could just sit alone in a room and think about what I've experienced. That would be enough for me for my whole life.' One time he just held the phone up and said, "Those are the bells of St. Peter's, Mom! I can hear them from my room!' "
Chris Shelly was a UB defensive end and Freedy's roommate for five years. The two got along famously on the college bar circuit, and while Shelly grappled with the loss of his drinking buddy, he recognized Freedy was a blue-chip recruit for the priesthood.
"Joe's the exact mold of what the Catholic church needs right now," Shelly said. "So many priests in the Catholic church have never experienced anything other than being a priest. A lot of the old-school priests were groomed right out of high school. He was a college athlete, had a girlfriend, did everything under the sun."
Freedy wasn't considered a prize recruit out of Bethel Park High in Pennsylvania. UB, then a Division I-AA program, gave him one of its last scholarships in 1997. He chose the Bulls over Division II Edinboro.
A steady field general, he became the Bulls' full-time starter his sophomore season, just as the program was rushed to Division I-A status. The Bulls managed only five victories during Freedy's tenure, but that was hardly his fault. He ended his collegiate career ranked among the school's top three in attempts, completions and yards.
As a senior in 2001, Freedy held his own statistically in the Mid-American Conference, finishing behind current NFL starters Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger and ahead of eventual third-round draft pick Charlie Frye.
"He did as good a job as anybody I've ever been around of the proverbial "playing within yourself,' " UB coach Jim Hofher said. "He didn't take chances or play the role of wild cowboy horse rider. He played a disciplined game."
Freedy was the quintessential college athlete during his first few seasons on campus. He enjoyed hanging with his teammates, having a few beers, enjoying a few laughs, hustling a few women.
"When you think about the typical college quarterback he has two girls on each arm and he's the life of the party," said Shelly, an insurance broker in Buffalo. "If people knew Joe was going to be at a party, they knew they were going to have a good time. Joe was always good for a few laughs."
But Shelly noticed significant changes in the quarterback their last two years at UB. Shelly noticed his carousing partner had begun "setting the example for what it meant to be a man."
Freedy also was having deeply spiritual discussions with his teammates, regardless of creed. Receiver Andre Forde, a born-again Christian, was impressed by Freedy's profound spirituality.
"I love Joe. He's my dear brother," said Forde. "We'd share and feed off one another. We shared some really intimate times in prayer, especially before football games because it would get so nerve-wracking."
Freedy said thoughts of entering the priesthood had been in the back of his mind since childhood. On a media guide questionnaire he filled out before his junior year he listed the priesthood as the profession he admired most and Pope John Paul II as his nonsports hero.
"We think it was always in Joe from the time he was very, very young," Judy Freedy said. "There was a vocation tucked inside him somewhere."
Judy Freedy, a nurse, described her family's religious attitudes as normal. She and Hank, a pharmacist who teaches at Duquesne, took their family to church on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and said their prayers before meals. She said there was nothing overzealous about their faith. Only their oldest child attended Catholic high school.
The seminal moment of Joe Freedy's epiphany could be traced to a book his dad gave him during Christmas break of his junior year.
"The Lamb's Supper," by Scott Hahn, details in layman's terms the Eucharist, the sacred portion of the Catholic Mass that re-enacts the Last Supper and transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Freedy compared "The Lamb's Supper" to a football playbook drawn up for fans.
"Before I read this book," Freedy said, "I'd go to church every Sunday for an hour, I'd be bored, listen to some bad music, finish, and as soon as I was done I would forget about God until the next week. (The book) just takes the reality of the Mass and it explains it in very simple terms, but in a powerful way."
Talk to anybody who knew Freedy at the time of his transformation, and one delicate subject is sure to be broached.
"He gave up the girl," Judy Freedy sighed.
Joe Freedy declines to mention his sweetheart's name. He said his decision, made the summer before his senior season, was as heartbreaking for her as it was for him. She has since married.
"He had a lovely, lovely girlfriend we all loved," Judy Freedy said. "It was very difficult on both of them. Joe and her were quite a nice item on campus."
The process was painful for Freedy. Even though the priesthood always was a possibility, he wanted to be a family man. He was in love, and this woman was going to be his wife.
But he loved God more.
"The decision involved a lot of suffering and a lot of talking together," Freedy said. "It wasn't just a "me' thing. She was very much involved. We discerned together that I was called to the priesthood, and that meant we weren't called to be together.
"All the beauty of marriage I had looked at, I mourned as a loss when I chose the priesthood. But I also want to emphasize how happy I am to make the commitment to the celibate single life."
Monsignor Ron Sciera of Precious Blood Church in Buffalo counseled Freedy through this excruciating time.
Sciera said he also helped Shelly "get over his feeling of loss."
"I almost took it personal at first," Shelly said. "Joe was my wingman on Friday and Saturday nights, but now I didn't have my wingman anymore. Those guys are tough to find, especially somebody who always had your back, like Joe did."
Just because Freedy made his decision and had begun to mentally prepare for the priesthood before his senior season, that didn't mean his rambunctious roommates felt compelled to reform.
Backup quarterback Mike Gaydosz, offensive lineman Josh Stello and Shelly remained, as Sciera jokingly called them, "three college animals."
Freedy borrowed an idea from "The Exorcist" in hopes of calming the waters.
"When you're a Catholic you might sprinkle holy water around your surroundings as a way to protect yourself," said Sciera, now retired. "One day after Chris went out the door, Joe took out his holy water and sprinkled every room in the house. Chris came back in because he forgot something and noticed his things were wet and wondered, "What the hell happened?' Joe shrugged his shoulders."
During that Christmas break in 2001, Sciera invited Freedy to Rome. Freedy was awestruck to learn Pope John Paul II, a close friend of Sciera, had asked the monsignor to conduct daily Mass alongside him in his private chapel.
Only about 20 people were allowed to attend. Freedy was one of them.
"He was kneeling in front of the altar and had his face buried in his hands, in deep prayer," Freedy said. "He didn't even flinch when we came in the room. You could feel his holiness. It was tangible.
"He was sick at this time, so he stood up very slowly with his back to us, turned slowly and looked at every person in the room from left to right. When he made eye contact with me I literally had to keep my legs straight and keep myself from falling over."
Freedy became even more emotional when he was introduced to his hero after Mass in the papal library.
"I knelt in front of him and hadn't planned on saying anything. I just said, "I love you,' and he gave me a big smile and his blessing," Freedy said.
Humility later turned into embarrassment.
Pope John Paul II traditionally gave a rosary to everyone he met under such intimate circumstances. Freedy nervously took his from the table and stepped aside so a friend could enjoy the same opportunity. There was an awkward pause for some reason, and no rosary was claimed. So Freedy snatched another one.
"The pope looked at me like "What are you doing?' " Freedy said. "The bishops started laughing. The pope started laughing; "You just stole a rosary from the pope.' "
Freedy will forever cherish his brief interactions with Pope John Paul II, whose passing April 2 reverberated around the world.
Millions of pilgrims converged on St. Peter's Square to mourn the immensely popular pontiff. Some waited in line as long as 24 hours just to catch a glimpse of his body.
Freedy said the outpouring of affection was awesome to behold.
"The death of John Paul II was very sad, but it was very beautiful at the same time," Freedy said. "One of the most powerful things - it will be cause for reflection and meditation my whole life - was the strength of the faith of the people of God.
"We saw the family of God come together. Us seminarians were saying, "What wouldn't we do for these people?' "
Freedy is scheduled to be ordained in 2008.
He plans to become a parish priest in the Pittsburgh area.
"I'm as certain as I can be that he is going to help people in their lives in a very significant way," said Hofher, a Catholic. "He has incredible sincerity. He's very serious, and he'll show tremendous compassion and understanding. He'll be great no matter what any of his assignments are, no matter where they are."
Many prayers for this seminarian and all those who have consecrated their lives in service to God!
What a great post! Very good article, sympathetic, or course, but also quite well written. That's very rare lately!
I KNEW they were Americans - thought they were athlete types - now I know!
Feel-good story of the week.
What a wonderful, wonderful story! Thank you so much for the uplifting post!
Whever I hear people moaning about vocations, I am heartened by stories like this young man- who calls to mind a seminarian who came here for short summer and ended up coming back for a pastoral 9 months. He too is at the American College at the Vatican. His enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring.
It's so wonderful to see such bright talented people choosing to serve God.
The vocations are growing! IMHO, the sex scandal was the Holy Spirit's way of purging the Church. Christ promised to remain with His church and here is the fruit of the scandal and that promise.
Wasn't this the same excuse that Tom Cruise gave his first two wives for not wanting to have sex with them?
I sure as heck wouldn't know. Was it? If so, who cares?
excellent. positive story. God Bless. Another Joannes Paulus Magnus generation priest.
Plus, our new parochial vicar is a retread - he did his parish training here. This is his first parish assignment. Preached his maiden sermon the Sunday before last (not yesterday but the week before). He did great!
I think the scandal was the fruit of bad seminary formation and lax supervision on the part of none-too-orthodox bishops . . . but it does indeed appear that the Holy Spirit is cleaning house for the new generation of young priests . . . hope so. God willing.
Just one teeny little nitpick.
He didn't forego "family and career". The priesthood IS a career. And theoretically he is now more readily available to his TRUE family, brothers and sisters in Christ.
I bring this up because I have an aunt who people kind of feel sorry for because she hasn't married or had children or gone to college, but is about to move to the Dominican Republic to serve as a missionary. But that is a legitimate career!
I wish we could expand the definitions of terms such as "family" and "career". Jesus certainly didn't forego family and career. When people ask me what career I am working towards, I tell them I want to teach the Bible to people who may have limited access to it. I won't make any money at it, but that just may be the difference between a "job" and a "career". I'd like to have a job to support myself, but that would not be my career. And I'll always have a family of my own, because I'll always have my Father, my brothers and my sisters, the true family.
Excuse the rant, but this is something that's important to me.
There is no need to expand the definition of family.
We are God's children, and the Church is the household of God.
We are family, from the marriage/household level to the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven.
The author's words are incorrect because they are written (probably unintentionally) from the relativist/humanist perspective of life seperate from and/or without God. From that perspective, the priesthood etc are a sacrifice that they consider to be a *loss* of whatever "better" things in life; career, wife/children etc. That perspective does not grasp that the vocation is much much more than any "career".
Thanks for the ping. That is a great story. Southwest Pennsylvania: cradle of quarterbacks...and...orthodox priests :)
Bump for Father Joe.
What a wonderful story!
**We have THREE new seminarians doing their parish training at our parish!**
Nice story. There's still hope for the Catholic Church.