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Priest participates in Bengal Bouts, connects experience to spirituality

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

When Fr. Nathan W. O’Halloran moved across the country to pursue a doctorate in theology at Notre Dame, boxing was the last activity he expected to pursue. 

Known by his competition names “The Exorcist,” “Priest Mode” and “Last Rites,” O’Halloran is the first priest to ever participate in Bengal Bouts, a campus tradition for 90 years.

Photo courtesy of Nathan O'Halloran

Fr. Nathan O’Halloran, seated, receives coaching from Fr. Brian E. Daley during Bengal Bouts. The 35-year-old priest is a two-time finalist in the annual boxing tournament.

O’Halloran said his fellow Jesuit priest and Bengal Bouts coach Fr. Brian E. Daley encouraged him to get involved.

“When I first arrived, he basically bugged me every day to get involved,” O’Halloran said. “I told him, ‘I’ve never thought about boxing in my life, I have no interest in boxing.’”

Eventually, Daley wore him down.

Daley, a Bengal Bouts coach, gives boxing pointers to O’Halloran. O’Halloran credited Daley for his involvement in the competition, citing him as a major source of motivation.

“My first year, I got involved and competed in the tournament,” he said. “I competed last year, my fourth year, and this year, my last year.”

In his first year of competition, O’Halloran advanced to the finals. In his final year of eligibility this year, his boxing career came full circle as he qualified for the finals for the second time.

“This year, I had to box twice before making the finals, and my semifinal match was a really tough bout,” he said. “I felt like I earned my way into the finals this time.”

On paper, however, O’Halloran does not fit into the typical description of a championship boxer.

A native of Vado, New Mexico, O’Halloran grew up working with the poor on the Mexican border through his parents’ Catholic missionary program, the Lord’s Ranch.

“That’s how I was raised, was working with the poor in Juarez, Mexico,” he said. “I was homeschooled so that we could go over into Mexico throughout the week and participate in the ministry, visiting shut-ins, visiting prisons.”

The missionary group that O’Halloran grew up in was founded by a Jesuit priest named Fr. Rick Thomas, who he called his “hero.” 

O’Halloran said the life and work of Thomas inspired him to become a priest at a very young age, and this helped him discern he would become a Jesuit priest later on in his life. 

Currently, O’Halloran is a doctoral student at Notre Dame in his final semester working toward a Ph.D. in theology. He recently submitted his dissertation, which dealt with the inclusion of the healing of assault victims in Purgatory. 

O’Halloran’s vocation may not lead one to assume he is a skilled boxer. However, O’Halloran said boxing is a key part of his spiritual identity.

“St. Paul talks about boxing. He uses boxing as a metaphor for spiritual training,” he said. “These last few years, I’ve felt like the Lord has been encouraging me to grow in certain areas, and boxing just happened to coincide with the growth I felt I was being pushed toward. When I confronted a weakness, a vulnerability, a struggle and didn’t ignore it, but was open about it and brought it to the surface, and worked on it — that’s where there was growth.”

O’Halloran also explained that amateur boxing isn’t the violent sport that most people picture, but rather a point-based system. 

“I actually wrote an article for a Catholic magazine last year answering this question,” he said. “There’s no extra points given for hitting someone hard.” 

He said his article touched on how we define violence. 

“The way I understand violence is this intentional infliction of long-term injury on someone that is part of the sport,” he said. “That may be true of professional boxing, but it’s not true of amateur boxing.”

However, O’Halloran did not deny the sport has been physically challenging for him. 

“The huge pain in my left rib right now reminds me of how hard [my opponent] can hit,” he said. 

O’Halloran hopes his involvement with Bengal Bouts will encourage other priests to participate in the future. He said he is extremely proud of his legacy here at Notre Dame. 

“For me, [Bengal Bouts] will always remain a great memory I have of Notre Dame,” he said.

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