Basketball has been way more than a sport for Father Patrick Harrison
February 9, 2024
Athletics – basketball in particular – have been a part of Father Patrick Harrison’s life since his grade school days at St. Bernard Parish in Omaha.
His skills on the court led him to a four-year career at Peru State College, but in the big picture, it is lessons learned and friendships formed through sports that have had a lasting impact on his ministry and his life.
He shares those stories with the Catholic Voice.
Part of his life and ministry
The newly ordained priest wanted to make a connection with the students at his first parish assignment.
After classes one afternoon, the former college basketball player made his way to the school gymnasium where a group of eighth-graders were shooting hoops.
“I took off my jacket and said, ‘Hey, let’s see the basketball,’ ” said the priest, recalling the moment from more than 30 years ago.
“I got a little run and dunked it, and they were freaking out. And they’re saying, ‘Oh, Father, do it again. Do that again.’
“So I did it one more time just to show them it wasn’t a fluke.”
It’s no fluke sports has been a way to connect with people young and old for Father Patrick Harrison since his ordination in 1991.
“I would have never thought that ahead of time [but] a lot of people love sports, a lot of parishioners love sports and follow sports,” said Father Harrison, currently pastor of St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure parishes in Columbus, as well as St. Stanislaus in Duncan.. “I have a familiarity with it because it was part of my life since I was 8 years old until even today.”
Father Harrison, one of eight children of Harold and Mary Harrison, attended St. Bernard Grade School then Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha, where he played basketball, golf and in his senior year, soccer.
Deacon Tim McNeil, a Roncalli graduate and current chancellor for the Archdiocese of Omaha, said his high school teammate was a gifted athlete.
“He was an excellent basketball player who could jump out of the gym,” said McNeil, who played with Father Harrison for two years. “He was a really good jumper and he could shoot it.”
After graduating from Roncalli Catholic in 1980, the 6-foot guard attended Peru State College in southeast Nebraska, where he earned a starting role his junior and senior seasons, the latter serving as co-captain with Michael Miller.
Miller, who lives in Hannibal, Missouri, recalled their playing days – he as the point guard and Father Harrison the 2 guard.
“Pat was a hard-working, stable foundation for the team,” Miller said recently. “He was a decent shooter, not somebody to go off for 20 points.”
Miller, who remains a close friend of Father Harrison, is a devout Christian who has authored a book of poetry, “Psalms From the Heart.” He said what he saw in his teammate in the early 1980s made it no surprise Father Harrison chose the priesthood.
“It 100 percent made sense,” Miller said. “For Pat, bless his heart, I think he knew what he wanted to do.
”What we both had in common was leadership. Pat also brought a force of stability. He didn’t get rattled, he always stayed even keel. He was just that stable at that time. And that also plays into why I think he understood his calling very early.”
After graduating from Peru State in the spring of 1984 with a degree in business administration, Father Harrison spent two years working for Max I. Walker uniform rental before enrolling at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
He was ordained in Omaha on June 1, 1991, and for three years served as associate pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha – the place where a few eighth-graders saw their new priest show off his dunking skills.
Sports not only helped Father Harrison make inroads with the youth of the parish, but with the adults, too, as he took part in men’s basketball and golf leagues.
“I had a lot of fun doing that and got to know the guys,” he said. “It made a big difference playing sports with the parishioners.”
Father Harrison said he sees great value for parishioners to see priests beyond their sacramental duties.
“Especially for Catholics that just go to Mass, they just see us from a distance,” he said. “If they’re not involved, interacting with priests, sports are a nice way to connect with people.”
Beginning in 1996, Father Harrison resided in Rome where he earned a canon law degree in 1998 from Pontifical Gregorian University.
After 18 years of being assigned to the chancery, he returned to parish work in 2012 as associate pastor of St. Gerald Parish in Ralston. In 2016, he was named chaplain at V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, where his athletic roots came back into play.
“I went to a lot of their football games, basketball games, volleyball games, helped with the golf program, assisting the coach for two years with boys and girls then taking over in the fall of 2018 as the head coach of the girls team,” Father Harrison said.
The Skutt girls qualified for the state tournament in the avid golfer’s only season as head coach.
Father Harrison said lessons of discipline, respect and relationship-building translate into living a good and meaningful life – be it at work, in a family or in a parish.
“If you’re going to be a good teammate, you’ve got to work with each other but also respect the person in authority, and sports helped me with that,” he said.
Patrick Harrison and Michael Miller met in the early 1980s on the campus of Peru State College in southeast Nebraska where they shared captain duties of the basketball team their senior seasons.
On and off the court, the duo connected like pinpoint passes find a teammate for an easy layup.
“We hit it off right away,” said the now Father Patrick Harrison, a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Basketball brought them together, but their faith in Jesus was, and continues to be, the foundation of a friendship that has endured more than four decades.
Both were raised in Christian homes: Father Harrison in a devout Catholic family in Omaha and Miller in Hannibal, Missouri, with his mother a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and his father a practicing Disciple of Christ.
Despite the teammate’s cultural and denominational differences, the two men forged a relationship that has lasted more than 40 years.
“We had an immediate connection on certain things,” Miller said. “Our individual upbringings were different culturally [but] the things that would bond people – principles, hard work, having faith – those were the kind of things that made me and Pat connect.
“If people have faith, they have faith. I’m not so meticulous whether they’re Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian or whatever.”
Finding common ground, he said, lessens divisiveness.
Father Harrison said he didn’t consider himself “super religious” as a college student, though he attended Mass and prayed every day.
“While I was in college, I never lost my faith,” he said. “Mike was Bible-oriented, where worship at Mass was my main thing.”
What they had in common, Miller said, was their unabashed relationships with Jesus Christ.
“To this day, that’s what still sustains our friendship,” Miller said.
Some of their conversations, Miller and Father Harrison said, have been candid discussions about their denominational beliefs without putting stress on their friendship.
“We both established that Jesus is the Savior,” Father Harrison said. “I made it clear to him our belief Christ founded the Catholic Church [and] he doesn’t take offense … which I think speaks well of him.”
“The best thing I love about our friendship – which it has sustained the test of time – is that we are two people who can be totally candid and vulnerable and transparent.
“I think we’re both that way when it comes to getting beyond the differences you have with another individual, whether it’s racial difference or age difference or gender difference or whatever.
“When you reach people, you’re reaching them with the context of what’s meaningful to them.”
Through the years, through visits to each other’s homes, through casual and thought-provoking conversations about life and faith, their friendship has endured and strengthened.
Not surprising, as Father Harrison recalled a conversation from years ago with Miller’s father.
“Somehow we started talking about lifelong friends and he talked about how he’s still lifelong friends with some guys,” Father Harrison said. “I immediately thought of ‘Well, maybe Mike and I can be lifelong friends.’ And it’s turned out that way. It was almost prophetic.”