Sports and spirituality - Catholic Courier
After a play during a 2009 football game, Father John Hollowell coaches Eddie Cmehil, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back for Cardinal Ritter Junior/Senior High School's varsity football team in Indianapolis. (CNS photo by John Shaughnessy/The Criterion) After a play during a 2009 football game, Father John Hollowell coaches Eddie Cmehil, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back for Cardinal Ritter Junior/Senior High School's varsity football team in Indianapolis. (CNS photo by John Shaughnessy/The Criterion)

Sports and spirituality

In this issue:
‘Play reminds us of joy, the joy of the Lord’
Women, sports and spirituality
The logic of sports and life
Food for Thought

In a nutshell

What is a Catholic approach to sports? Can it make a difference?

There are many analogies between spirituality and sport. Spiritual growth has the same requirements as athletic growth. Both require discipline, practice, strength, community and even, at some point, a letting go.

St. John Paul II urged every Christian “to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel.”

‘Play reminds us of joy, the joy of the Lord’

By Father Patrick Kelly, SJ/Catholic News Service

Now that two Catholic schools, the University of Notre Dame and Villanova University, have won the Division I national championships in women’s and men’s basketball, perhaps it is time to give some thought to what difference a Catholic approach to sport makes. Such reflection will benefit not only Catholics, but the wider culture and sport itself.

The following are four themes from the Catholic heritage that can make a difference in how Catholics and others approach sports.

 — Play is accepted in cultural expressions and taken seriously intellectually.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there can be “a virtue about games.” For him, virtue had to do with moderation. A person should not work or study all the time, but needs time for recreation, which play and games provide.

For Thomas, play is not merely the “pause that refreshes” so that the person can get back to work and be more productive. Rather, it is engaged in for its own sake. As he put it, “the only thing that is sought in play is the soul’s delight.” The enjoyment of play does have an end, however, and that is the restoration and re-creation of the human person.

Thomas’ thought had a significant influence on late medieval preaching about games and sport and on Catholic education up to the present. The “play ethic” of Thomas needs to be retrieved and developed in our time, as sports are increasingly regarded instrumentally as means to the end of money or prestige, and the play element is being marginalized or lost altogether.

— The human being is created in the image and likeness of God.

This understanding of the human being is the foundation for the emphasis in Catholic social teaching on the unity of the human family. The popes have emphasized that sports competitions provide the opportunity for people from different cultures, races and religions to encounter one another as members of the same human family.

Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, who founded the Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago in 1930, is a good model in this regard. In one of the most segregated cities in the United States, the CYO from the start welcomed athletic participation by all and provided a context for young people from different socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds to encounter one another.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich has recently called for a revitalization of the CYO in Chicago as a way to bring young people of different backgrounds together and address discrimination, poverty and gun violence.

This understanding of the human being is also the foundation for the emphasis in Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the human person. According to the popes, the dignity of the person needs to be front and center when it comes to the consideration of sport practices and policies.

As St. John Paul II put it, “sport is at the service of the person, and not the person at the service of sport.” He pointed out that sport serves the person when it leads to his or her integral development.

— The human being is a unity of body, mind and spirit.

Because the person is a unity, embodied activities such as sport necessarily affect persons at the level of consciousness — their making of meaning, understanding of themselves and their relationships with others. It will also affect them at the level of spirit, that dimension of the person that makes one capable of relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Educational institutions should provide opportunities for young people to reflect on how playing sports is affecting the way they understand themselves, their relationships with others and the meaning of their lives. The element of joy associated with play is particularly important to attend to with respect to their spiritual lives. As Pope Francis said, “Play reminds us of joy, the joy of the Lord.”

As it stands, most schools in the U.S. tend to operate out of a body-mind dualism, with athletics and academics having little or nothing to do with one another. We don’t typically ask young people to reflect on the embodied activities in sport that many of them are spending a great deal of time engaging in.

— The human being is social by nature.

We are meant to live in community and it is in the context of community that our gifts are recognized and called forth. When team sports are practiced within a Catholic institution where community values flourish, there can be a symbiotic relationship between sports participation and the educational mission of the school.

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright points out that the Villanova mission statement says that the university seeks to reflect the spirit of St. Augustine by having “mutual love and respect ‚Ķ animate every aspect of university life.”

Wright said that this isn’t the sort of language one usually associates with a competitive athletic program. “But it is exactly these principles of love and respect, of compassion and serving others, that give Villanova a certain something special that sets it apart.”

Experiences of playing on a team with communal values can help young people to appreciate the importance of commitment to the common good and to persons who are excluded, discriminated against or living in poverty.

(Jesuit Father Patrick Kelly is associate professor of theology at Seattle University. He is the author of “Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times” and the editor of “Youth Sport and Spirituality: Catholic Perspectives.”)

Women, sports and spirituality

By Nancy Wiechec/Catholic News Service

March Madness went wild over women this year.

Two women dominated the craziness — Arike Ogunbowale of the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University Chicago chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt. Even for those who watch little national sports (Me!), it was difficult to avoid their stories. They showed confidence, strength and zeal and captured the nation’s attention when the men and their brackets usually rule.

High school coach and theology teacher Anne Stricherz was still on cloud nine after the spring NCAA tourney rounds.

“I can’t get over this past week in sports,” she told me. “Incredible! 2018 has been filled with memorable sports moments already.”

“I could talk about the shot for the next hour,” she said of Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater that clinched the women’s NCAA title for the Fighting Irish. “It was great to see the excitement that day over Ogunbowale, and also with coach Muffet McGraw, who had her 800th win at that game.”

Did you know all the coaches for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team are women? I did not.

“Yep! That whole staff is women,” Stricherz said with pride. Women rising to the top in their game does not surprise her.

“Forty plus years of Title IX and we have many more women participating in sports. The talent level is high, and the more you dig in and look at women in sports, the better it gets.”

Stricherz coaches women’s golf and teaches in the theology department at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in the San Francisco Bay area. She grew up in a faith-filled family and sports was a huge part of life. Through the years, Stricherz took up running, tennis, swimming, golf and more. She was a rower for Notre Dame, and she’s coached several team sports.

All this led her to developing a course called Sports and Spirituality at St. Ignatius. The elective class examines Catholic spirituality through the lens of sports.

“It brings together my two passions,” she said. “It’s about how God might meet people in those domains.”

The Catholic coach said there are many analogies between spirituality and sport, and that spiritual growth has the same requirements as athletic growth. Both require discipline, practice, strength, community and even, at some point, a letting go.

For Stricherz, spirituality has that core Ignatian message of finding God in all things — after all she was schooled in Jesuit institutions and she teaches at one. It’s a spirituality that connects to everyday life.

“I utilize the analogy of sports to offer that connection to young people. I teach this way because sports is what they love, and they’re open to creative ideas. If we believe in finding God in all things that would not preclude the things that are important to us, like sports.”

Last year, Stricherz published a book to help individual players, coaches and athletic directors (the “shepherds of the shepherds,” she said) bring a spiritual dimension to their play and teams. “Pray and Practice with Purpose: A Playbook for the Spiritual Development of Athletes” gives 30 ways to pray with a team using athletics as a cornerstone for building community.

Her favorite suggestion is one she uses with the girls on the golf team.

“At the end of the week, we gather in a circle, join hands, and say the prayer of St. Ignatius. Then we go around the circle and each one says what they are thankful for, who needs our prayers and what was one ‘Wow!’ moment from the past week.”

The ritual opens communication, builds community and also lets the coach know what else is going on in the lives of the young women — things that might not have popped up during practice or competitions. It’s a moment of grace after a week of work, sweat and exhaustion.

Stricherz recalls one such prayer session that was a bit more intense than usual because of some weighty experiences shared by a few of the golfers.

“We never made it to sharing our wow moments. We just ended up in a big group hug,” she said. “That was our wow moment for the week.”

(Follow Wiechec on Twitter: @nancywiechec.)

The logic of sports and life

By David Gibson/Catholic News Service

Sports and spiritual life resemble each other in notable ways that caught St. Paul’s attention in his First Letter to the Corinthians (9:24-27).

In the back of Paul’s mind when he urged Corinth’s Christians to “run so as to win” was an image of athletes training for the ancient Isthmian Games, held in alternate years on Greece’s Isthmus of Corinth.

Winning was everything in these games; there were no second- or third-place awards. Without disciplined, demanding training, the athletes — wrestlers, long jumpers, chariot racers and numerous others — were unlikely to achieve their dreams. “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way,” Paul observed.

Paul’s discussion briefly mentioned the great demands of his endeavors to spread the Gospel far and wide. He drew upon his image of the training the games required. “I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing,” he said. “No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”

Few 21st-century heirs to more than 2,000 years of Christian thinking will be surprised that Paul thought it made sense to prepare to meet the demands of Christian life, to get into condition, so to speak, perhaps through prayer, reading, discussion and participation in the Christian community’s life. God, after all, is not a magical power to take for granted.
Indeed, there can be times when Christians must ready themselves to live faith under adverse circumstances.

The fact that Paul recognized parallels between the stadium athletes’ disciplined preparation and that undertaken by Christians does not mean he failed to recognize their differences. The athletes of the games prepared “to win a perishable crown,” a wreath actually made of wilted celery. But Christians sought an “imperishable” crown.

Or, as St. John Paul II noted in an October 2000 speech, Paul’s “metaphor of healthy athletic competition” has a way of highlighting “the value of life, comparing it to a race not only for an earthly passing goal, but for an eternal one. A race in which not just one person, but everyone can be a winner.”

Human growth and development do not tend to come easy, certainly not over the long term. In sports and in all of life, it is safe to say with St. John Paul that “without sacrifices, important results are not obtained”; dissatisfaction takes root.

This is “the logic of sport,” just as it is “the logic of life,” he explained.

In other words, close observation reveals that sacrifice, commitment and, yes, elements of suffering are inherent to achieving honorable goals and advancing in human maturity.

St. John Paul urged every Christian “to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel.” This, he said, requires perseverance in prayer, training in virtue and following “the divine Master in everything.”

In this, he suggested, the wisdom of Psalm 126 is pertinent: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy.”

(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)

Food for Thought

Catholics seeking to adopt healthier lifestyles both physically and spiritually can turn to Catholic Fitness Training, a program that combines catechesis and workouts tailored to individual, group, parish or online personal training sessions.

Jordan Friske, 29, of San Diego told The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego, that “when we diet or exercise with a secular standpoint, we can often make our bodies an idol.” 

 From a Catholic viewpoint, Friske said, “our bodies are a gift and we are called to be stewards of all the gifts that God gifts us.” 

Catholic Fitness Training’s website lists seven steps that Catholics can incorporate into their daily lives to become healthier physically and spiritually: create goals, have accountability, determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), diet, start exercising, make your body your prayer and be patient.

“We should embrace that hard work and love the process. We will not reach our target weight or sainthood overnight,” the website states.

Catholic Fitness Training’s website is

Read more about Catholic Fitness Training here:

Copyright © 2024 Catholic News Service, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

Choose from news (Monday), leisure (Thursday) or worship (Saturday) — or get all three!

No, Thanks

Catholic Courier Newsletters