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So a Catholic priest walks onto a tennis court. Seriously. It happens, for Father Paul Arinze, every day at the United States Open.

Often, Arinze climbs into the chair, as a certified bronze badge umpire. There, he officiates serves, not church services, matches instead of Mass. Below, players cross themselves and pray for victory or take the Lord’s name in vain. They do not know that while God may not be interested in their tennis match, a clergyman is watching from close range.

“Sometimes, I’m tempted to say, ‘You know, you have a Catholic priest sitting here,'” Arinze said, reclining on a bench during a break Wednesday. Being a priest, you’re trained to forgive.”

By day, Arinze works as director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison, Wis. At tournaments, he trades his robes for the polo shirts worn by the officials, his altar for the chair. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

In both instances, there is no one best approach. The basics are the same, but the personalities are different, and thus the approach must be as well. The constant is dealing with people who mostly just want someone a priest, an umpire to listen to them, a private confession versus a public one.

While Arinze in no way believes sporting events hold the same importance as many other events in life, he does see similarities, because to the participants, matches often take on oversize importance.

“It’s not one size fits all,” he said.

He does not believe God takes a rooting interest in sports. But Arinze sees nothing wrong with players who cross themselves, or pray on the court. If that calms them, he said, so be it.

“I always say God has more important things to do than root for a team or player,” Arinze said. “Because if he did, then everyone would win.”

At an imposing 6 feet 4 inches with size 13 feet, Arinze played tennis in high school and in college intramurals. He learned by watching his favorite players on television, legends like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert.

His father assumed Arinze would also become an lawyer, as his three siblings had. Instead, Arinze idolized the Irish missionaries who served as parish priests and taught in schools. He liked the idea of serving people, helping them, so he entered a seminary, which brought him to the United States in 1995.

By 1999, Arinze was an ordained priest. His first assignment: Wisconsin, near Madison, where he would watch the university’s tennis teams in his spare time. One day Arinze struck up a conversation with someone he did not know was a tennis official. The official told him to wear khaki shorts when he returned the next day, and, to Arinze’s surprise, the official put him in a chair.

This, Arinze said, was a leap of faith.

He said he loved it in Madison, loved the tennis, loved his work. He lived with the Scott family, became their fifth child, the adopted one; his skin black, theirs white. He became a United States citizen in recent years.

“Everybody who has anything to do with him just loves him,” Charles Scott, the family patriarch, said by telephone. “He puts people at ease. He once told the church we were his American family and joked about the resemblance. He just has a way with people.”

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Over the years, in his spare time, Arinze worked at tournaments in Miami, California and Tennessee, at Wimbledon even. Sometimes, he served as a line judge; other times as a chair umpire.

His day job, at its core, is about recruiting for the priesthood. Tennis, and the attention he has gained from it, helps him. He can talk about his hobby, too, to show how becoming a priest does not mean one must give up everything.

Tennis officials have asked Arinze to consider pursuing the game full time. “No thank you,” he always responds, “I love my job.”

Arinze, in fact, is comfortable right where he is, at the intersection of faith and forehands, sometimes a priest, sometimes an umpire, but always officiating.
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