by Matthew Higgins, Assistant to the Vocations Director
One of the greatest sporting event upsets of all time arguably happened during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York when the United States defeated the Soviet Union for the gold medal in men’s ice hockey. The United States men’s hockey team was comprised of college students from rival schools. Under coach Herb Brooks, these heated rivals had a year to come together as a team and go up against some of the best teams in the world, teams who had played together for decades. While Canada was the favorite in the earliest part of the 20th century, winning gold medals in nearly every Olympic tournament during the 1920s-1940s, the Soviet Union dominated Men’s Ice Hockey for three decades, winning the Gold Medal in the ‘56, ‘64, ‘68, ‘72, ’75 games. No one believed that the United States had any shot and yet they won the gold medal that year. So just how did the United States defeat such powerhouses? Some call it a Miracle, but really they were a team of uncommon men.
In the 2004 movie, Miracle, based on the actual 1980 team, the major turning point for the US players is depicted in a post-game speech given by Coach Herb Brooks. The team had just played an exhibition game against a European club team, which resulted in a tie. During the game, the US players were distracted and acted like hotshots. In their minds, they didn’t have to push themselves because it wasn’t an important game. They didn’t want to put in hard work, they thought they could get by on individual talent alone—so their Coach made them work after the game, making them do sprints back and forth across the ice for hours bringing them to their physical and mental breaking point.
This scene was not simply added for dramatic effect, it actually happened as several documentaries and player interviews have described over the years. The players remember it vividly and Brooks’ words during this grueling, intense workout sounded a wakeup call to the team. He said,
“This cannot be a team of common men…because common men go nowhere. You have to be uncommon…”
The team, as history tells us, certainly worked harder than all of the other teams. Herb Brooks’ coaching style was certainly not aligned with the way of men’s thinking. To bring young college students from rival schools together to play against the best in the world was laughable by some. Those who hired him to coach the Olympic team were very skeptical of his logic. Their practice techniques were uncommon and illogical, but they worked; they bore fruit—the players did come together and became “uncommon”.
As the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are reminded about what unites us as Christians. We are reminded, in a way, of the “uncommonness” of Christ’s Kingship which we, as His followers, are called to emulate. As it relates to Christ’s priesthood, the priesthood can be viewed as a team of uncommon men. A team united in the love of Christ, the King. This team is guided by the Holy Spirit, under the leadership of the Successor of St. Peter.
This notion is beautifully described in a homily from the solemnity of Christ the King in 2010, where Pope Benedict XVI described the role of the priest as being “uncommon.” He spoke of Christ going to His physical and mental breaking point on the cross. Pope Benedict XVI described Christ’s kingship as being linked to that difficult, self-sacrificial act, when he laid down his life for the sake of His kingdom, his Church, his team.
In his homily, Pope Benedict XVI says:
“This ministry is difficult, because it is not aligned with the way of men's thinking -- with that natural logic which, moreover, remains always active also in ourselves. But this is and remains always our first service, the service of faith, which transforms the whole of life: to believe that Jesus is God, that he is the King precisely because he went to that point, because he loved us to the end.”
The priest cannot be a common man because Christ was not common. It is not common to give up everything to follow God’s will. It is not common the live a life of celibacy in order to fully devote oneself to the service of others. It is not common to preach truth to a society that wants to believe lies. These things are not common nor are they easy—they are difficult. The ministry is difficult, the Cross is heavy, it hurts sometimes. Yet Christ shows the priest, and all Christians, that they never face it alone. The King himself suffered and He suffers with us. It is through this difficult ministry that Christ’s witness is proclaimed.
Pope Benedict continued:
“And this paradoxical royalty, we must witness and proclaim as He did, the King, namely, following his same path and forcing ourselves to adopt his same logic, the logic of humility and service, of the grain of corn that dies to bear fruit.”
Christ’s kingship was not “common,” meaning it is not one of worldly glory or recognition. Instead of a crown of gold and jewels, Christ chose the crown of thorns. Instead of being waited on hand and foot by nameless servants, He came to serve the nameless. The priest, too, must follow this example. By following Christ’s witness of humility and service, the priest proclaims not only his belief in Christ as Lord because of His sacrifice, but also the truth of Christ’s love for His church. By following the same path as Christ, the priest’s life becomes an example Christ’s fruitful, self-sacrificial love – the most uncommon characteristic of Christ’s kingship. It is from this love that the Church bears the fruit of unity as Pope Benedict concluded:
“The Pope and the cardinals are called to be profoundly united first of all in this: all together, under the guidance of the Successor of Peter, they must remain in the lordship of Christ, thinking and operating according to the logic of the Cross -- and this is never easy or to be taken for granted. In this we must be close, and we are so because we are not united by an idea, a strategy, but we are united by the love of Christ, and his Holy Spirit.
The efficacy of our service to the Church, Bride of Christ, depends essentially on this, on our fidelity to the divine royalty of crucified Love.”
When the first players were selected for the US hockey team in 1979, they were a group of individuals—they were not close; they were not exactly united. It isn’t until after Brooks called them to be a team of uncommon men that they began to come together as a team. They no longer saw themselves as individual all-stars from specific colleges, but privileged members of a team, called upon and individually selected to represent something greater than themselves. It was their dedication to their common bond that transformed them into uncommon men, uncommon men who obtained an unreachable goal. Much like the Apostles were transformed by Christ from a group of individual disciples to One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, today, Christ calls certain men to be uncommon by following His example to serve as His priests. Together, united by the love of Christ, these men help the Church move forward—not toward gold medals or earthly recognition, but towards Christ, our King.
Christ, King of the Universe, please select holy men for your priesthood
Through you, may these men do those things that may be viewed as uncommon:
To say Yes to your call, to surrender to Your will
To deny themselves, pick up Your cross, and follow You
To lay down their lives so others may come to know You
To preach truth amidst the lies
To sow peace amidst hatred
To bring unity where there is division
To bring light where there is darkness
And, most of all, to love as you loved
O Christ, King of the Universe
This blog will contain resources, reflections, homilies, and articles to help you in your discernment.