Father Sean Raftis, a parish priest in Montana who has become well-known in recent years as one of the Gonzaga Prep “Tag Brothers” whose story has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, ESPN, CBS and is now the inspiration for the summer blockbuster movie “Tag,” discusses his intriguing story and the importance of deep lasting friendship.
JOHN RUSTIN:Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. In an increasingly social media driven and impersonal world, authentic lifelong friendships can be hard to come by. Many adults can count the number of true, deep friendships they have on one hand.
But one group of 10 men has spent the last 30 years creatively breaking this trend, and in fact, they have become the subject of a new big screen Hollywood movie.
Today, we are joined by Father Sean Raftis, a parish priest in Montana who has become well-known in recent years as one of the Gonzaga Prep “Tag Brothers” whose story has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, ESPN, CBS and is now the inspiration for the summer blockbuster movie “Tag.”
Now, let me be quick to say that our conversation today is not intended to be an endorsement of this R-Rated movie, but rather, that we are excited to have Father Raftis with us today to discuss this intriguing story and also the importance of the deep, lasting friendship, which really underlies it.
Father Raftis, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you with us.
SEAN RAFTIS: Thank you, John. It’s wonderful to be with you. I just wanted to say hi to all the listeners, and especially everybody involved with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. I really appreciate the great work you do!
JOHN RUSTIN: Father Raftis, the story of the Tag Brothers begins in the 1970s. One of you described your friendship group as having everything and nothing in common back then. How did you all meet and what drew you together?
SEAN RAFTIS: That’s a great question. It goes to [another group of] men who had everything and nothing in common: the Disciples of Christ. We were fortunate enough, our families—our mothers and fathers—sacrificed to send us to a Catholic High School, Gonzaga Prep. In high school, we of course had the commonality of our Christian faith and we were taught about the good, the true and the beautiful in our religion classes, and it was Christ that animates everything about the school. I think the underlying animator of our friendship was Christ. You’re able to just be drawn together from different parts of the city, from different backgrounds and different personalities. So essentially, I think it was Christ that brought us together. Our families, our moms and dads, were so good who modeled friendship for us. I thought the guys had a great sense of humor and were very good-natured. That’s what brought us together.
JOHN RUSTIN: I think many of us can relate to that. However, your friendship has lasted for 30 years. Also, the game that you all started playing back then, Tag, is something that you continue to do today. Talk about that a little bit.
SEAN RAFTIS: It was interesting. We started playing in high school, and at the end of our junior year, the game had finished. And one of our members was a year ahead of us, so Joe was “it” for life—till the 1990s. We continued to figure out a way because people were getting married. They were developing careers, getting involved in their communities, and we were living in disparate places. So we found this as a way to literally keep in touch. So, it’s a silly game of Tag but we figured: Hey, it would be kind of neat to start it up again and to figure out excuses to maybe travel by car or plane over to visit friends and to tag them and hang out for a while and have dinner or lunch or coffee, and just kind of catch up with one another.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s neat. I know you say it’s a silly game, but it also is a pretty serious business for you all. I understand that you even have a legal agreement that all of you have signed. So what are the rules of this game of Tag?
SEAN RAFTIS: The participation agreement essentially boils down to three rules. First of all, it’s the whole month of February. Secondly, there are no tag-backs, so if you and I are in the room and I tag you, you can’t tag me back. And the third rule is, if you are “it” and I ask you, you have to answer truthfully and reasonably promptly. So those are the basic three simple rules of Tag.
JOHN RUSTIN: Father Raftis, you’ve already made reference to this but I think it’s definitely worth digging into a bit: You have said your relationship with Jesus Christ is really the basis of that. And of course, we notice that Jesus began his public ministry with a group of friends as well. Why is friendship so important for the Christian life, especially when we consider the lives that we live in an increasingly cynical and polarized world?
SEAN RAFTIS: I think it’s because we live in an increasingly cynical and polarized world that the need for friendship is even more important today because, there’s something about friendship that touches upon the true, the good and the beautiful. Christ said to the Disciples, “I call you friends.” A lot of these movements, whether religious or secular, that’s why they were very lasting, whether it’s the religious order that came about in the Catholic church, whether it’s “Band of Brothers,” you know the series was based upon in WWII. I think friendship is something that resonates with everybody. Every man and woman yearns for friendship. Ultimately, it’s friendship in Christ that we yearn for. During our lives, we’re given these great graces of relationship, in that we’re part of the mystical body of Christ on Earth. And part of that is: No man or woman is an island. We need to be able to have that contact, that communion with one another. It’s precisely because there’s sometimes an impersonal aspect of friendship, like in social media—I can list you by one click as a friend even though I’ve never met you, I know nothing about you—that in this day and age, there’s nothing like authentic human contact. And there’s nothing like the holiness of developing a friendship with men and women in the Agape sense, in the Christ-like sense, where it’s meant to help us in good times and in bad, and to make the good times better when we rejoice, and also to console one another when we’re going through times of heartbreak, loss, difficulty and things like that, that we all can encounter.
JOHN RUSTIN: I assume that after 30 years, not all 10 of you who are in this game of Tag share the same opinions, priorities or lifestyles. Why is it important for us to form and keep friendships with people who may be very different from us?
SEAN RAFTIS: I think it shows the many faces of Christ, which are the many faces of humanity. Take a look at the Disciples: You have Peter and you have James and John and Thomas, Thomas Didymus, and you had this multiplicity of personalities but they were all followers of Christ. Like the motto of our country, E pluribus unum, out of many one, there’s a yearning toward unity in humanity, in that we yearn for communion. And I think it’s very important and beneficial and it feeds the soul to have friendships, to realize that on our pilgrimage to heaven while we are on earth. It’s very, very valuable and beneficial for the soul, mind and body to be able to form friendships with those who we have things in common with. But also, to realize that we have a lot of things to learn from folks who have different opinions, different viewpoints, come from different professions, and even different economic strata. Everybody has something different to offer in terms of their opinions. We are rational beings, we have that spark of the divine-like intellectual facility in us, reason, and we’ll always have these endless capacities to question and to learn. We’re always supposed to learn. Once we think we’re done learning, we’re in trouble. So, it’s engaging with folks who have different views than us that makes us better because it makes us understand human nature on a deeper level.
JOHN RUSTIN: Father Raftis, you and your buddies have been friends for over 30 years, and that’s awesome, but what would you say to a man who finds himself in the prime of his life, but who lacks these lifelong friendships like you all have had? How can men go about developing authentic and lasting friendships at later stages of life?
SEAN RAFTIS: That’s a great question. I think first of all, we all have a friend in Christ Jesus and in the communion of saints. We have these great men and women who have gone before us marked with a sign of faith, and we always have examples of good relationships around us. I would say, either reach out to somebody you haven’t reached out to in a while, or get involved in your church. And there are all sorts of organizations, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, there are many ways in which a person can reach out to make contact with organizations, or maybe somebody you thought about calling, or maybe somebody you need to forgive or accept forgiveness from. So there are a multiplicity of ways in which men can find a friend. And I think too, it’s important to be careful about where you search out a friend. I think the best place to start is in your faith community, and just pray about it and ask our Lord to direct you or to help you make contact with somebody who is going to make your life richer and more holy.
JOHN RUSTIN: Before we end our conversation today Father Raftis, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to reminisce about a couple of your most favorite moments as you have played Tag with your friends over the years. What are some of your favorite tag or failed tag attempts?
SEAN RAFTIS: I’ll give an account of at least two. The first one: In 1991, I was living in Seattle and Mike and I—Mike Conneskie is a Tag brother living down in Palo Alto near my other tag brother Joe Tombari—who was a newlywed at the time. I flew on a Saturday from Seattle to San Jose. Mike picked me up, I got into his car and a block away from Joe’s house, who was a newlywed at the time. Before I got into the trunk I said, “Mike, go up to Joe and tell him you have a new set of golf clubs and you want to show him in the trunk.” Then, about a block away from Joe’s house, I got into the trunk. Mike goes over to Joe’s house, knocks on the door. I didn’t know what was going on, you know you are literally in the dark in the trunk, and so I heard voices. I heard the key going into the trunk and it popped open about six inches and I saw a sweatshirt. I figured it was Joe so I lunged out at him. Now the last thing you expect to see is a hand coming out of a trunk. Well it was Joe’s wife, Joanne! She was so startled that she back-peddled and tripped over the curb onto the grass. And I looked over and popped open the trunk, jumped out and Joe was two feet away and he was looking completely stunned and I went and tagged Joe, “You’re it, buddy.” Unfortunately, Joanne tore her ACL at the time. So we went and attended to Joanne and that night we took her out for pizza and made sure she was okay. She’s fine now, she had an operation, she’s good as gold now, but that was one of my favorites. It’s also the second. My favorite tag of all time was at the hands of my friend Mark Mangert. He and I were in the first day of first grade together and we made friends. Mark dressed up the Gonzaga University Bulldog, a great basketball program, in one of the last days of the season. They were playing against a team and they were televised on ESPN. Well, Mark dresses up like the Gonzaga Bulldog—he got a mascot’s outfit—and he went down the stairs in the bulldog outfit and Brian Dennehy was in the third row at center court with his brother Shaun, so Mark walks over to Brian, tags him and hands him a note that says, “Dear Brian, You’re it! Love Mark.” It was a great victory on Mark’s part. That was my all-time favorite.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, that sounds like a lot of fun, and just a great way to continue those lifelong friendships. And with that, Father Raftis, unfortunately, we’re at the end of our conversation. But I did want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they might go to learn more about authentic friendship and the Tag Brother’s story.
SEAN RAFTIS: I think the best place to start is you Google Russell Adams. His Wall Street Journal article on Tag is available online and you can click onto the Tag Participation Agreement. That’s probably the best place to start because Russell Adams—he’s our friend, he’s an honorary Tag brother, he’s a great guy—he was the one who was responsible for all the publicity when the article came out in 2013. That Wall Street Journal article basically says a lot. There’s also a friend of mine, Professor Dawn Eden Goldstein, she wrote an article about Tag in the current online and print edition of Angelus,which is the Archdiocese’s newspaper/magazine for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. So either the Wall Street Journal or Angelus. You just go and take a look at those. They’re actually excellent articles.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. Thanks so much for those resources. I want to encourage our listeners to take advantage of that, look into this story a little bit more, and realize that lifelong friendships are so important, as Father Raftis has so aptly stated, and can really help our relationship not only with each other, but with Christ, blossom.
And with that Father Sean Raftis I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for the encouragement that you and your story provides to really value, nurture and sustain lifelong friendships.
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