Note: Kelly Conroy received the 2013 Sheridan Award for excellence in sports and academics from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., shortly before graduating with a Master’s in Business Administration. She now works in marketing and communications for The Cardinal Newman Society.
One fall weekend, my tennis team at Mount St. Mary’s University was scheduled to play in a home tournament all Saturday and then leave at 7 a.m. Sunday to play in an away match against another team. We knew that we were going to be playing late into the night on both Saturday and Sunday. It looked like making it to Sunday Mass was impossible.
My teammates and I realized the predicament that we were in, and so we talked to our coach – it had just been an oversight in scheduling. Our two team chaplains from the Mount seminary scheduled a 6 a.m. Sunday Mass for our team on campus, before we left for our match. I knew that I wouldn’t go to the match if it meant missing Mass, but I’m glad I wasn’t ever put in that situation.
I am grateful that I spent my college years playing sports at a faithful Catholic college. As a student-athlete I spent time not only on the court, but also in reflection about the relationship between my faith and my passion for athletic success.
For students seeking to make the connection between living the Catholic faith and being a successful athlete, there are good resources to draw on, such as the Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC). Dr. Bill Thierfelder is coming to northern Virginia on September 21 for an exciting CAC conference on the essential connection between faith, athletics and academic excellence. As both a high jump national champion and the president of Belmont Abbey College, Dr. Thierfelder has the wisdom and experience to teach students how to achieve personal success without compromising the essentials of the faith.
The Catholic Church has not written an official document on sports, but we can learn a lot from our popes’ more than 200 homilies, messages and speeches concerning sports. Also, there have been three Vatican seminars on the topic, and there’s even an Office of Sport in the Vatican.
There’s a compilation of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s messages to athletes here. He once said:
“Sport, as you well know, is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands use of intelligence and the disciplining of the will. It reveals, in other words, the wonderful structure of the human person created by God as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit. Athletic activity can help every man and woman to recall that moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work.” (John Paul II, Address to participants of Athletic Championship: Be examples of human virtues,“L’Osservatore Romano” Weekly English Edition, n. 36, September 7, 1987, 5)
John Paul II’s message is game-changing. Are sports about more than training our bodies? Can sports help us develop character and virtue? Do sports really recall human beings’ creation?
This view of sports is quite different than the one we often find in our culture or on our college campuses today. Sports have become an obsession where the great prize of winning is sought after using any means necessary.
A properly understood view of sports is about winning too—but with a different kind of prize. As Catholic athletes, our ultimate prize is heaven with the God Who loves us and with Whom we have also fallen in love. God is our final end. If sports are a part of our calling, or vocation, then they should be something of paramount importance in our lives.
St. Paul reminds us: “Whatever you do, do from the heart, for the Lord and not for others” (Colossians 3:23).
We are responsible for how we perform the tasks we are given in our lives—these include how we practice, how we compete, how we treat our opponents, how we work with teammates, and how we prepare our bodies.
Sports can help us become better versions of ourselves; athletes strive to “form the perfect man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself” (Ephesians 4:13).
As athletes, we achieve victory in our sports by becoming champions both on and off the field in the spiritual life. Champions are courageous, putting everything on the line, and being able to keep getting back on our feet. Champions glorify God through their bodies and acknowledge their talents as gifts from God.
A champion is not stuck in seeking the pleasure that comes from an athletic victory. A champion strives for, is drawn to, and seeks excellence; this search for excellence gives the athlete a “momentary link to the Other Who is perfect” (Pontifical Council for the Laity, comp. Sport, Education, Faith: Towards a New Season for Catholic Sports Associations. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, 57).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI goes even further to describe sport as “the free action of play as a sort of return to paradise, as an escape from the wearisome enslavement of daily life” (Pontifical Council 57–58).
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