'Souls in the Game' documentary explores deeper mission of St. John's basketball team

BRIGHTON -- When most people think of a Catholic seminary, they might imagine something like a monastery, where men follow a strict life of prayer and study as they discern their vocations. They might not imagine playing sports, although such activities can help seminarians develop fraternity, discipline, and other areas of growth.

That is the subject of "Souls in the Game," a documentary about St. John's Seminary's basketball team and their journey to an inter-seminary tournament earlier this year. The project was made possible by the generosity of donors and the partnership of the seminary with the archdiocese's Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship.

St. John's Seminary hosted a premiere screening of the film on May 11, with an online release to follow on May 18 at soulsinthegame.com. Joe Jasinski, a pre-theology II seminarian and member of the basketball team, served as the emcee of the seminary premiere.

After screening the movie to an audience of friends and supporters, Jasinski moderated a panel discussion with Ann Gennaro, the director and producer of the film; Father David Barnes, director of spiritual formation, who served as one of the basketball team's chaplains; Deacon Peter Schirripa, one of the team captains; and Patrick Nee, the team's coach.

At the end of the panel, they presented signed, framed photos of the team to Coach Nee as well as Joe Bernardi, the facilities manager at Mount Alvernia Academy, who woke up at 4 a.m. each day to unlock the school's gym so the seminarians could practice there before morning prayer.

Gennaro said that the production team -- which included Nick Gould as director of photography, Sofoklis Gourdoukis as camera operator, and Nathan Wilson as editor and director of photography -- felt like they became part of the basketball team while working on the documentary. They accompanied the seminarians on one of their predawn practices and on their three-day trip to the tournament in Milwaukee in February.

"In the entire production process, getting to know this team has been incredibly special," Gennaro said.

She talked about "this idea of teamwork, and that team isn't just working together to accomplish a goal, but it's about community and fraternity and sorority and love and fellowship."

"That is what I've seen embodied in this basketball team, that true teamwork that reflects the love and community of the Trinity," she said.

Deacon Schirripa acknowledged that, at first, basketball was an "outlet," which he used as "a way of distracting me from the drama of formation and the big question of if I'm called to be a priest." But he came to see it as a way to build a team and a community.

"Through time, playing with all my brothers, God showed me it is a great tool and a great gift," he said.

Coach Nee proposed the idea of making a documentary, but it turned out that Deacon Schirripa had been considering such a project for six years, but did not want to be the one to suggest it.

"It was the Holy Spirit at work, because he'd been thinking about it, and I said it," Nee said.

"I wanted people to share in the joy that I experienced," he added.

Nee said that, although he has coached and played on many teams, coaching the seminarians was "unique." Even team members who rarely got to play still made the early-morning runs and cheered on their teammates.

"There's no grumbling. They're there for the team, and they want to win, and they think if a guy's better than me, he should be out there. You don't see that selflessness all the time, and it makes you want to be more selfless," Nee said.

Father Barnes said that like the Church, basketball leads people to meet others they might not have met otherwise.

"To me, this is the Church, right here," he said as he addressed the audience, which included archdiocese staff, friends of the seminary, and donors to the project.

"Honestly, I was sad that they didn't win, but I didn't really care. Because this is the victory. The victory is the community that is built up in the seminary," Father Barnes said.

He said many lay people tell priests their opinion on what subjects ought to be taught in seminary, such as finances or languages. But what they really need more of, he said, is humanity.

"I hope it comes across in the video that this is a formation in humanity, and what we're doing here shows us what humanity is," Father Barnes said.

Deacon Schirripa explained that the purpose of the tournament is "to bring seminarians from across the country together," not only to compete, but also to meet each other, pray together, and "see that the Church is a lot bigger than just your local diocese."

Since returning home from the tournament, some of the teammates have received invitations to the ordinations of seminarians they played against.

Deacon Schirripa, who is set to be ordained a priest on May 20, announced that the team captains next year will be Joe Jasinski and Marcelo Ferrari.

"I'm really looking forward to flying out as a priest to come watch you guys compete," Deacon Shirripa said.