Symposium on Church & Sport Challenges Us to Provide Pastoral Care through Sport

This past June I wrote an article summarizing “Giving the Best of Yourself,” the Vatican’s original document on the Christian perspective of sport and the human person that was published on June 1. I was fortunate to participate in the Symposium on the Church & Sport on March 7 that The University of Notre Dame and the Play Like A Champion Today program hosted.

The symposium brought together about 60 educators, sport administrators, and sports and spirituality scholars to discuss the contents of the document and produce recommendations for United States bishops to implement the Church’s perspectives on sport.

Rev. Donald Hying, Bishop of Gary, Indiana, called the document “one of the greatest things to come out of the Vatican in years.” While “Giving the Best of Yourself” provides its own set of recommendations to enhance the sport experience, I came away from the meeting recollecting three themes – the importance of mission in our Catholic sports programs; making sports an equal-opportunity, all-inclusive proposition; and promoting the document so those involved in sports have an understanding on the Church’s perspective.

Throughout the dialogue during the symposium, I recalled some statistics on Catholic school students I came across: 70 percent of Catholic school students participate in sports. 25 percent of those students attend Mass regularly. Only ten percent of them participate in a youth group activity. As educators and sport administrators of Catholic schools, we have a responsibility to evangelize by meeting our young people where they are. And where are they? They are on playing fields, in gyms, in pools, and on tracks.

In Pope Francis’s letter in response to “Giving the Best of Yourself,” our Holy Father called sports a “formative vehicle” and “a means for mission and sanctification.” Many Catholic schools and parishes embrace this aspect of our mission. However, It has been my observation that there we are missing out on enhancing this aspect of our mission. As Catholic educators, sport administrators, and coaches, one of the first questions we must be asking ourselves is “Where are the opportunities in our sports programs to evangelize?”

“Giving the Best of Yourself” suggests the idea of “Sport for All” for pastoral planning through sport. During the course of the symposium, our group had rich discussions on how we are called to make sports more inclusive by providing opportunities for, as Pope Francis calls, the “marginalized.”

In our world full of sin – racism, sexism, religious and political intolerance – sports provide an empathic way to bring people with differences together for a common bond. Sports should bring people together and provide opportunities for everyone to play, not just the best athletes. We must provide opportunities for those with financial and physical limitations. Breaking down these limitations help build our communities.

If you have ever been to the campus of the University of Notre Dame you have probably sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Catholic identity that resonates throughout the campus and visibly through their athletic programs. After all, there is a 14-story mural of Jesus on the Hesburgh Library overlooking the campus and, most notably, Notre Dame Stadium.

It was my observation that while attending a football game, “Touchdown Jesus” isn’t the only way to identify Notre Dame as Catholic. The athletic department has embraced “Giving the Best of Yourself” and found ways to promote it. In his symposium welcome, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick stated that at each home athletic contest the Irish post a banner with the following excerpt from Pope Francis’s response to the document:

Sport is a very rich source of values and virtues that help us to become better people.
Like the athlete during training, practicing sport helps us to give our best, to discover our limit without fear, and to struggle daily to improve.

Like the University of Notre Dame, I strongly encourage all of those who coach in and administer Catholic sports programs to, first, read “Giving the Best of Yourself” and share it with those associated with the programs. It can be easily accessed on the Vatican’s website. Then I challenge all of them to find people in their communities who can “champion” ways to form our young people as not only athletes but as holistic people. Finally, I urge them to promote the document and the Church’s perspective on sports. Spread the mission of our Church and evangelize on the playing fields, in the gyms, in the pools, and on the tracks.

This article may also be found in the March 15, 2019 issue of The Messenger.

Play Like A Champion Today’s summary of the symposium and videos of presentations can be found here.