A Sporting Chance
Are sports really compatible with our Catholic faith?
by John Pietropaoli, LC | Source:
For better or for worse, sports are here to stay. And at times the second half of the expression may seem more appropriate due to unfortunate behavior on the part of professional athletes: think of Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick, or, more recently, the boys of summer whose pharmaceutical experiments are now catalogued in the infamous Mitchell Report.
Maybe these shenanigans are symptomatic of a deeper problem – are sports really compatible with our Catholic faith? Are they to be tolerated simply as a way for children to work off excess energy? Or is there some deeper value that makes sports an important activity for us as Catholics?
It’s interesting to observe what the Vatican has to say about this topic. As we all know well, the Pope and his assistants are sober scholars whose labors include the defense of human dignity, and the maintenance of a moral standard often at odds with the prevailing social standard. So given their role as traditionalists, what could elderly churchmen have to say about something as youthful and cool as sports?
Quite a lot actually. Last July, an Italian priest mentioned to Pope Benedict XVI that as a seminarian he often felt torn between soccer and spiritual pursuits - and he still wonders how to reconcile the two activities. The Pope’s response might surprise some who may have been taught that Catholicism is enjoyment’s staunchest foe: “I would be against choosing whether to play soccer or to study sacred Scripture... Let us do both…Both are given to us by the Lord and therefore loving human things, loving the beauty of this earth, is not just very human, but also very Christian and quite Catholic."
Several months later, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, had this to say to the 62nd session of the U.N. General Assembly on sport for peace and development:
"Through sports the person develops one's creativity and talent, overcomes personal challenges, acquires a sense of belonging and solidarity, learns discipline and a sense of sacrifice.”
And in early January of this year, the Pope addressed professional soccer players present at a Papal audience in the following words: "May soccer increasingly be an instrument for teaching values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially among the youth.”
These incidents are not random nods towards a world far removed from faith; rather they are part of a wider current within the Church. In fact the Vatican even has a "Church and Sports" section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Ever the visionary, Pope John Paul II launched this initiative in 2004 for the mutual enrichment of the Church and the sporting world. Something is afoot.
But, in fact, the bond between Christianity and sports is nothing new - it was already present in St Paul’s writings. It’s always striking to read St Paul and observe the athletic imagery that abounds in his epistles. He could have chosen another analogy to illustrate the importance of following reality’s regulations – perhaps a merchant or a politician – but instead he selected an athlete. “Take an athlete – he cannot win any crown unless he has kept all the rules of the contest.”
Like any athlete, St Paul also recognized that winning counts. You get the sense that he may not have embraced the expression “It’s not about whether you win or lose. It’s about how you play the game.” Yes, but how you play helps determine whether you win or lose; and as in sports, so also in life. “I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me…I am far from thinking that I have already won. All I can say is that I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is still to come. I am racing for the finish.”
And the athletic emphasis is present in St Paul throughout; actually as he approached the end of his life he was able to say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” For St Paul, then, not only are Catholicism and sports compatible, they are actually complementary. To apply Pope Benedict’s expression quoted earlier, sports, in their proper place, are in fact eminently Catholic.
Why is that? Or, to return to our original inquiry, what is the value of sports for today’s Catholic? Of course it’s clear that sports, like many other good activities, can be abused. When they take precedence over God and others, there’s obviously a problem since sports are a gift from God – they are not God.
The key here is to understand that sports are a gift from God. God wants us to enjoy ourselves, to work hard, to learn how to push beyond our comfort zone – and all these are admirably combined in sports. Self-control, tenacity, and teamwork blend harmoniously with the thrill of a quick crossover dribble that frees you for a three, or a free kick from outside the box buried in the back of the net. Put quite simply, it’s fun to play – and you form your character and will. That’s what we might call a privileged combination.
So in the end sports are not merely something that a Catholic has to tolerate – unless (to use a somewhat trite expression) he happens to be more Catholic than the Pope. For Pope Benedict is serious when he says that the love of human things (a category that encompasses sports) is “quite Catholic”; he means that we must be careful to avoid positing a dichotomy between our faith and our fun.
Throughout its 2000 year history the Catholic Church has always upheld the truth about the human person: body and soul form a unity, not an opposition. Our humanity is a gift from God, redeemed by Christ (who came to share in it). In the final analysis then, this is why sports are so important for us, since in their various facets they enhance our awareness that it’s good to be alive. And that very experience can, if we allow it, bring us closer to the source and author of all that is good.
Bother John Pietropaoli, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in New York.