‘PE Padre’ finds unique way to care for school children – Arkansas Catholic

Father Malapolu used to join the students of the CTK to play during recess, physical education classes

Posted: February 14, 2022

Dwain Heba

Father Bhaskar Malapolu, associate pastor at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, competes with sixth-grade student Caroline Carle in shuffleboard during physical education class on February 2.

Father Bhaskar Malapolu stands in the middle of a stream of sixth graders who pour into the gymnasium from both sides. It’s the first period, and as the associate pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock greets them all, they respond in kind before quickly splitting into twos or threes. They’re used to seeing it – it’s a Catholic school, after all – but for the viewer, this particular class period is a unique interaction.

The 41-year-old priest is not there to celebrate Mass, preach forgiveness or give a lesson on the Gospel of Luke. He is not even there to promote vocations, although by his presence some may very well hear that call one day.

Today Father Malapolu, the PE Padre, is here to play shuffleboard.

“Like everyone else, I love kids,” he said. “I play with all grades, from kindergarten to eighth grade, depending on my schedule regarding mass and hospital calls. Even if I don’t know what they’re playing, I join them and run with them because my intention is to be with them.

“Like everyone else, I love children. I play with all grades, from kindergarten to eighth grade, depending on my schedule regarding mass and hospital calls. Although I don’t know not what they are playing, i join them and run with them because my intention is to be with them.

Since arriving in the larger parish of Little Rock, Father Malapolu has made a habit of attending recess and physical education classes with coach Courtney Cancienne to participate in the day’s activities with the students.

“He just happened one day,” said coach C. as he is called. “He would go out to play football and then slowly start playing with the kids for outdoor recreation. Then he walked into the gym, and I don’t really know how it started, but we were talking and he said, ‘Hey, what are you guys playing?’ I was presenting what we were playing, and he just wanted to play.

“The kids, when he walks into the gym, they love him. They love his presence. They love him playing. They want to be his partner. It’s so awesome.”

“Priests have always been a little nerve-wracking, but when Dad came to our PE class and played with us, it’s more fun,” said sixth-grade student Olivia Lusk. “I’ve seen him play soccer and he’s always having fun, smiling and scoring goals. He is super fun to play with.

Most of the games are foreign to the native of Nellore, India, from pickleball to lacrosse to cornhole. This led to some humorous moments, like the wrong-way touchdown he scored during football. But as the students have learned, you underestimate Father Malapolu at your peril.

“He’s really good at everything, basically, except golf,” said sixth-grader Marco Hernandez. “He’s a good athlete. It’s really fun when he’s around.

“One time we played cornhole against my eighth graders and we had a tournament,” Cancienne said. “Father and I beat up all the boys in eighth grade, and they were so upset. He was so good at it. It was just such a fun time.

Father Malapolu, who is entering his 10th year of ordained life, came to Arkansas in 2019. He said while organized sports were rare as a child, he was always an active youngster.

“I wasn’t an athlete, but I loved games and sports,” he said. “I was the kind of kid who went out all the time and only came home to eat. The rest of the time I spent with friends or playing cricket and other games that children used to play in the villages.

From the earliest days of his priesthood, Father Malapolu found joy in connecting with children. He began his recreations while in India and continued when he arrived in Arkansas, first at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton and for the past two years at Christ the King. He said that in addition to playing, he finds his faith renewed every time he hits a volleyball or swings a jump rope.

“More than my love for children and my interest in sports, the children’s love for the priest helped me to get closer to them,” he says. “They are so innocent in the way they see priests. I noticed in them a kind of joy or happiness when they see me.

“I don’t know how to say it, but something beautiful happens, as if they believe that Christ is with them, or if they feel the presence of God. Every time I go to the playground, the gymnasium, the classroom, or the cafeteria, I want them to feel the presence of Christ and want me to bring Christ to them.

“When he arrives and plays, he connects with the kids on another level,” Cancienne said. “He also teaches them. I will ask him in front of the children: “What did you play when you were growing up? or they’ll ask him about his sports and things like that. They learn so much from him, and you can see how much he enjoys getting to know them.

This connection will take on a whole new dimension this semester. Wanting to share an element of Father Malapolu’s culture, Cancienne puts him to work by teaching students his favorite sport.

“I would like to teach children to play cricket. I bought bats, balls and wickets. Maybe in the next few days I will teach them,” he said. “I really enjoy playing with them and I’m having a wonderful time in my life. I feel like I’m reliving my childhood.”

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