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A former athlete, the Rev. Joe Freedy scores points with parishioners

The Rev. Joe Freedy on:

• “Stealing” a rosary from Pope John Paul II: “I mistakenly took two from him, because I thought he was handing me a second one, when it was for the person behind me. (A priest next to him) laughed and said to me, ‘You just stole a rosary from the pope.' It was a lighthearted moment.”

• Playing against Ben Roethlisberger: “I was on the same field with him, certainly not on the same level.”

• Life and spiritual lessons from quarterbacking a football team: “It gives you internal strength to draw on the rest of your life.”

• Sports providing material for homilies: “On a football team (as in life), you learn to live together in kind of an imperfect system. To go forward you have to forgive a lot, including yourself, encourage each other and band together. Nobody walks through this life alone, or, at least, they shouldn't. Sports helped me be more merciful to myself and others.”

• Making sports a “religion”: “Look in at any rectory on a Sunday and they will be watching the Steelers and cheering them on, but we can definitely go overboard. If God is not the center of our life, we find something else to take his place. I know that from personal experience.”

• Encouragement: “One of the greatest gifts of being a priest is being able to encourage people. Life can be so hard. I feel so much joy in encouraging people that our God is not one of discouragement.”

• Meeting Pope John Paul II: “I had something prepared to say and when he came up to me, I just opened my mouth and just started crying. The love that was radiating through him was just kind of overwhelming. I wasn't expecting that. He patted me on the face, gave me a big smile and a hug and said, ‘God bless you.' ”

Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:17 p.m.

Gripping the football with a comfortable sense of familiarity, the Rev. Joe Freedy fades back while encouraging the young man to “Go deep!”

Timidly, the high-school student jogs out 20, perhaps 30 yards, at which point Freedy urges, “Keep going.”

Now, in a full sprint, the boy seems shocked to find a high, tight spiraling rocket of a pass landing right in his arms. “Wow!” he says, as his classmates watch, dumbfounded, one of them asking, “What was that, like 50 yards?”

Then comes the awestruck question — “Who is this priest?” — says seminarian Adam Potter of Mt. Lebanon, as he recalls the scene, repeated by Freedy, director of vocations for the Pittsburgh Roman Catholic Diocese, in subsequent visits to schools and youth events. As vocations director, Freedy's role is to help men be open to the possibilities for their future, including, for those who feel called, the priesthood.

Father Joe, as he is known, took what many view as his own surprising route in answering his vocational call.

Recruited out of Bethel Park High School where he graduated in 1997, he quarterbacked the University at Buffalo football team from 1999 to 2001, going head to head against opponents who included future NFL signal callers Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington, winning press accolades despite leading a team that struggled for victories.

A welcome face on campus, he partied hearty with his buddies; had a girlfriend whom he thought he would marry and whom his family loved; anticipated using his communications degree and people skills after graduation in a job that would support a wife and children. And then, before the start of his senior year, he called a dramatic life and career-changing audible, responding to that inner voice, that perhaps there was something more he was meant to do and to be, that had been tugging on the lifelong Catholic for some time.

As one observer commented, “Here's one case where this quarterback is going for the real ‘Hail Mary' play!”

Today, at 34, the former member of St. Thomas More Parish, Bethel Park, is one of the bright lights in the Pittsburgh Diocese's starting lineup, having been ordained to the priesthood by Bishop David Zubik in 2008 at St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland, where he resides.

Freedy says he has never had an unhappy day as a priest. “It's hard to imagine doing anything else. I love this so much,” he says.

While studying in Rome, he twice met Pope John Paul II and once served Mass for Pope Benedict.

Before being named vocations director, he briefly was the popular parochial vicar at Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge and St. John the Baptist Parish in Baden, and as part-time chaplain at Quigley Catholic High School.

“People were devastated when he left. We need more priests and role models like him,” says Good Samaritan parishioner Janet Duzicky of Harmony.

Freedy was chosen for the cover and is one of the athletes discussed in Patrick McCaskey's chronicle, “Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout,” published by Sporting Chance Press.

“Joe's the exact mold of what the Catholic church needs right now,” says Chris Shelly, a former college roommate. “So many priests in the Catholic Church have never experienced anything other than being a priest. He was a college athlete, had a girlfriend, did everything under the sun.”

Adam Potter, in his second year of studies in Rome, says Freedy had a huge impact on him.

“He brings a visible passion and zeal that is contagious,” he says. “He reminds us that the Church and the priesthood need real men to give their life to God. He brings a much-needed normal perspective to this work.”

While Freedy acknowledges that his sports background, at times, can open doors for some people to be more receptive to his message, he hopes to be viewed “as a normal guy that's just trying to grow closer to God and help everybody do the same.”

“We are all super-unique,” he says. “There are not any of my classmates of priests today in the diocese that the church doesn't need. We all have something particular to bring to this path the Lord brought us on.”

The youngest of five, he remembers his mother, Judy Freedy, once telling him, “Joe, if you follow Jesus Christ, it will be the greatest adventure of your life.”

“It's really true. Anybody following the Lord has stories. The priest stories, some are really dramatic, some are really funny, some are just a faithful walk. Whatever the path, it's really exciting when you follow the Lord,” he says.

Hank Freedy, a clinical pharmacist in infectious diseases, says he and his wife, a nurse, felt from a young age that their son, who was “a typical kid growing up,” was called to be a priest.

“We encouraged him to keep it on the list of possibilities,” he says. “Everybody has a vocation. His is religious. It is important to seek to know the vocation to which God is calling you because this will find you happiness.”

His son agrees and stresses that message in conversations.

“Some people call me a recruiter, but I only want men to be priests who are called to be priests. I'm not trying to convince anybody. I'm trying to get men to be open to the possibility of being priests,” he says.

His sister, Susan David of Mt. Lebanon, believes Freedy brings vitality to the church and “holiness and reverence” to the priesthood.

“I'm really a pretty normal guy who basically fell in love like anybody else. I fell in love with the Lord. It hasn't made me any less human or fun,” says Freedy, who likes to read, fish, hike and play a variety of sports. “I realized that he's not into making our lives boring or miserable, but just the opposite. He invites us into this adventure of growing and living life to the fullest on the way to becoming the amazing people we're created to be.”

The Very Rev. Joseph Mele, secretary of the Diocesan Secretariat for Leadership Development and rector of St. Paul Seminary, Crafton, where Freedy's office is based, is impressed with the young cleric, who will be honored Aug. 25 at the John Cardinal Wright Vocations Mass and Awards Dinner. The Bishop's Latin School alumni annually recognize those who are models of service to the church, and particularly to vocations serving the church.

“I have been a priest for 40 years, and some of my most meaningful conversations are ones I have with Father Freedy,” Mele says. “He inspires, because he has encountered God in his personal life and daily prayer.”

Mele sees Freedy's greatest strength as his intelligence. “He takes his spiritual life and prayer life very seriously. He is contemporary, in touch with the moment of history in which we are living, and understands real life but he is also reflective and even contemplative,” Mele says.

Mele believes that is why so many young men, seminarians and others, are attracted to what he has to say. “They hear a message preached and taught that speaks to their soul in a way they haven't heard quite the way he says it,” he says.

It is an incredibly fulfilling life, says Freedy, who, one day, would very much like to be a parish priest.

“You're always dealing with the deepest moments of people's lives, their joys and suffering,” he says. “It is a life worth living. Our whole lives are meeting people at the most crucial moments of their lives and walking with them. I can't imagine anything more fulfilling.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or



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