Black-and-white attire plays heavily into Father Paul Bonacci’s identity — and it’s not just his priestly vocation that makes this so.
On Friday nights during the fall, Father Bonacci trades in his black shirt and Roman collar for a striped jersey. In fact, his tenure as a high-school football official dates back further than his priesthood.
Father Bonacci, pastor of Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen/St. Benedict, Odessa), said players are often caught off guard when they learn of his day job. For instance, while chatting with them during breaks in the action, he asks if they know certain people from their community — then enjoys watching the double-takes when he tells them “Father Paul said to say hi.”
“It’s nice to blow people’s minds,” he remarked.
Throughout his 15-year priestly ministry, Father Bonacci, 47, has committed his Fridays to officiating as a member of the Finger Lakes Chapter officials’ organization.
“It only goes for a couple of months, but it’s a great group of officials I work with, a great camaraderie,” he said.
He normally works as an umpire, with his primary responsibility to stand behind the defense and look for holding penalties by offensive linemen. Umpires also judge some passing plays.
It was as an umpire that Father Bonacci enjoyed the highlight of his officiating career last November, working the state Class C championship contest. The game, won 48-21 by Sidney over Dobbs Ferry, took place at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Father Bonacci earned the assignment by virtue of his top-10 ranking among fellow officials.
“Oh my gosh, it was such a thrill,” he said of his first state final.
In addition, Father Bonacci has been named a past “Official of the Year” by the Finger Lakes Chapter and is the current chaplain of Section 5 football.
Yet these lofty credentials don’t always insulate him from an occasional complaint. One coach protesting a call said he deserved better treatment because he goes to church on Sundays — to which Father Bonacci replied, “Well, go this Sunday and pray for my eyesight.”
Once, a player complained to Father Bonacci about the level of on-field swearing, explaining that he was a Christian.
“I said ‘Well I am, too — I’m a priest.’ That kind of took him by surprise,” he said.
Then there was the fellow official who lost his beanbag — an item used to mark where the football should be spotted. So Father Bonacci recited a quick prayer to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost items. Sure enough, the beanbag soon reappeared.
Father Bonacci’s love of football began as a player in a Vince Lombardi youth league in his native Waterloo. He went on to play for Waterloo High School as a center and linebacker. While still a high-schooler, he became involved in officials’ work through his father, Frank, who would take him along on officials’ meetings.
“By my senior year, I was officiating JV baseball games,” he said.
He noted that his dad, known around town as Pee Wee, was a legend in youth-sports circles. When he died five years ago, the local newspaper carried the headline “Pee Wee Loved the Kids.”
Pee Wee Bonacci’s passion has been passed down to his son.
“I think sports are a wonderful thing, especially for our youth,” Father Bonacci said. “It helps teach teamwork, discipline and organization. I grew up in sports and believe in sports — not just being on the sidelines, but being in the action. It’s awesome.” He also quipped that “it’s better than watching Notre Dame frustrate you on TV.”
Father Bonacci has worked 20 straight seasons as a member of the Finger Lakes Chapter. This year he’s even gotten Deacon Dan Pavlina of the Schuyler Catholic Community involved; they worked a modified-level football game together at Trumansburg in late September.
Along with refereeing duties, Father Bonacci serves as chaplain of the Ithaca Police Department. He said these connections often breed ministerial opportunities that may not otherwise have arisen.
“I’ve gotten questions about God and Catholicism, made appointments to talk about issues. I’ve gotten baptisms, weddings and funerals out of it,” he said, adding that his presence in public venues sends out a key message to youths about vocations.
“Entering into religious life or the diaconate doesn’t separate you from the world,” he said. “A lot of people have the image of a priest locked away in his closet, praying. But Jesus walked among his people.”