WOODBRIDGE, N.J. (CNS) — One of the competitors at the recent 2019 New Jersey Senior Olympic Games may have gone by the nickname “Charlie” on the bocce court, horseshoe pit and miniature golf course, but on Sundays, his parishioners at Woodbridge’s St. James Parish call him their pastor, Msgr. Charles W. Cicerale.
The 71-year-old bespectacled, bearded cleric — sporting shorts, sneakers, a baseball cap and a royal blue shirt — was one of about 1,500 men and women who competed in more than a dozen different sports in the annual Woodbridge competition.
Msgr. Cicerale earned four medals in his age category over the Sept. 6-8 competition, including a gold in individual bocce, a silver in horseshoes, and a bronze medal each in doubles bocce and individual miniature golf competitions.
“This has been a lot of fun,” he said, looking at the medals adorned with red, white and blue ribbons. “I am not much of a competitor. I do it for the fun of it all.”
Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac had invited the new pastor to participate in the sporting events soon after he arrived 15 years earlier to helm the suburban parish, noting it would be a good way to meet his parishioners. The mayor was right.
“There were a lot of my parishioners there,” Msgr. Cicerale told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. “They were surprised to see me on one level, but also happy to see me. We were having fun and not taking it too seriously, and enjoying the camaraderie.”
The pastor shared the dais with local and state officials at the opening ceremonies, said a prayer, then joined his fellow competitors on the playing fields. Describing his bocce strategy as “half luck, half skill,” he and St. James parishioner Jerry Lu Cante clinched third place in bocce doubles.
The monsignor’s “just for fun” strategy was tested by certain northern New Jersey competitors, however. He smiled as he discussed his toughest competitors: members of a bocce club from Jersey City.
“The competition was serious in bocce. It came down to the very last throw,” he continued. “When I won, (my competitor) was angry, but I told him, ‘There is a God, and he takes care of his own.'”
Msgr. Cicerale freely admits he might receive some ribbing from fellow clerics about his sports endeavors. The quadruple-medal winner has a message for his fellow clergy who might think participation in the secular event inappropriate.
“To those who might argue that this is not the place for a priest, I would say, ‘Come and give it a try. Maybe we can encourage others, and it’s not a bad way to stay fit.'”
There’s also the connection with his flock to consider.
“They saw me in a whole different light,” Msgr. Cicerale said. “Not only can I have fun, but they saw me as pretty much one of their own.”
Perhaps most importantly, faith knows no boundaries, which makes sports arenas unique, but appropriate, places to speak of evangelization. The priest related a conversation he had with the wife of one of his bocce competitors.
“She was surprised to see a priest involved in the games. When she told me she had been away from the church for a while, I said, ‘You know that big church down on the corner?” Msgr. Cicerale asked, referring to St. James perched atop a nearby hill. “Why don’t you come down? We are there every weekend.'”
“There’s no reason to stay away,” he added. “Whatever reason there was, come home. You are always welcome in our parish.”
The priest extended an invitation to speak with the lapsed Catholic, who expressed gratitude by echoing his offer to return to the fold.
“I told her, ‘You know what you are missing? You miss the Eucharist,'” Msgr. Cicerale said. “‘Don’t let anyone or anything keep you away.'”