One group of athletes have taken advantage of Seton Hall’s deep-rooted Catholic foundation by pursuing bible studies, fellowships, and services. They are Varsity Catholic, an organization comprised of 25 Seton Hall student-athletes dedicated to growing in their faith and developing as both athletes and people.
The organization is a division of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. FOCUS is at 138 campuses across the country, both public and private, with Varsity Catholic establishing themselves at 97 of those Universities. Although Varsity Catholic is still a growing organization, it has been at Seton Hall for more than 10 years. Their mission is, “To introduce the world of sport through Jesus Christ and his church through intentional mentorship.”
Two former collegiate athletes, now missionaries in SHU’s campus ministry, Garrett Bernardo and Megan Gitchell, lead Varsity Catholic’s program at Seton Hall. Bernardo, an Albany native, played baseball at the University of Maine and Anderson University before taking what he called a literal, “leap of faith” into the FOCUS missionary program. Last year, he came to South Orange in the hopes of continuing his work as a missionary. Gitchell is a native of Chicago, but played college soccer at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, before making the transition to FOCUS after her playing days.
Bernardo said that as former athletes, he and Gitchell are missionaries because they love collaborating with young athletes that resembled what they were like as undergraduates.
“We enjoy connecting to young athletes who share our passion of sports and faith, but also to serve student-athletes and help them grow in their faith and use their athletic platform to serve their community,” Bernardo said.
Two weeks ago, the Vatican Head of Church and Sport, Santiago Perez de Camino Gaisse, spoke to FOCUS in Brooklyn. During his time there, Perez met the director of Varsity Catholic, who encouraged him to learn more about the organization. Looking for something to do, Perez took his advice and came to visit Seton Hall’s Varsity Catholic organization.
Santiago Perez only spent about three hours on campus but made the most of that time by meeting with Pirate coaches and athletes.
According to Bernardo, Perez came to the Seton Hall to learn about the relationship between faith and athletics, but also to see how Varsity Catholic operated. Currently, there are 25 athletes involved in the organization, but more than 50 participate in select Varsity Catholic programs, like mission trips and community service.
Soccer player Spencer Burkhardt and cross country runner Kiley Britten, both juniors, were two of the athletes that met with Perez to educate him about their Varsity Catholic experiences. Burkhardt called the experience “exciting” because Perez was somebody who came from the Vatican.
“He was just curious about why we were involved with Varsity Catholic and how it has helped us both on and off the field,” Burkhardt said.
Meanwhile, Britten spoke about how Varsity Catholic helped her stay balanced with school and sports.
“It has helped me navigate my schedule, between class, practice, and games. Staying grounded can be difficult but Varsity Catholic gives us a way to do just that,” Britten said.
Both athletes were surprised to see how interested Perez was in them and how impressed he came away from the experience. Britten said that Perez called the organization “unique” and was curious about ways that they could be assisted in being even more connected to their faith.
Bernardo said that what makes Varsity Catholic special is that every athlete present is there because they all want to grow in their faith.
According to Bernardo, the group is less of a bible study and more a family of people who all strive to be the best person of faith they can be.
Andrew Lombardo can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org or @lombardo_andrew .