Sports and Spirituality: Fertile Ground for New Evangelization

Article excerpt

An effective place to invite every Catholic to renew a relationship with Jesus Christ might be on the track or trail, on the hardwood or in the bleachers

Walk into Sports and Spirituality, the senior religious studies course at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco, and you will encounter a striking image on the introductory PowerPoint and course reader. It features a recognizable, popular athlete. His arms are completely outstretched; his head is held back in total surrender. Above the black and white photograph are the words "We Are All Witnesses."

The image is familiar to my students, even if they are not sports fans. Nike ran this advertisement nationwide on posters. The subject is the 2012 basketball Most Valuable Player LeBron James.

On the first day of class, I ask my students if the poster is spiritual. A provocative discussion ensues on how or why it is or why it is not. I take the familiar and place it in a new context. Indeed the foundation has been laid for what I consider fertile ground for New Evangelization.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), "The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church" (USCCB website).

It may seem unlikely and unsuspecting, but I believe the study of sports and spirituality is one important way to implement this New Evangelization or, as Pope Benedict XVI directed, to preach the Gospel that corresponds both to the truth and to the needs of modern men and women (Catholic News Service June 28, 2010).

Pope Benedict's description of New Evangelization prompts questions I have considered often as both a religious studies teacher and as a Catholic Christian: What are the needs of young men and women today? What are they hungry for? I have always believed the Gospel provides great answers, but I decided it was important that I listen to determine if that remains true.

Where to Look?

In order to answer these questions, I sought places where my students were their "true selves." Too often the classroom was formal and structured so I started to pay attention to the places where they are at ease. Where is a place they are engaged and yet challenged? Relaxed and real? Where do they play and have fun?

I didn't have to look far. It was on the two-hour bus ride to the regatta. It was on retreat in our small groups. It was at cross-country practice as I ran the long run with them. It was in talking with the elderly while on our two-week service immersion. It was in sports and in spirituality.

What I saw and what I heard- what I learned from the sporting and spiritual arenas- confirmed my suspicion. And the beauty of that is they weren't separate from each other. In fact, they complemented one another- the sports were spiritual. The spiritual was in sports. And ultimately every young man or woman could renew a relationship to Christ in this arena- not separate from it.

What Did I See?

At basketball games, I noticed that for a group of 12 young men or women the only thing in the world that mattered at that moment was taking place on the hardwood. I saw hope, sweat and total focus. I also saw at our boys' varsity games that during every time out one senior, who rarely got playing time, would make his way to the water cooler. This 6'5" athlete would fill two Dixie Cups and hand them to his teammates so they could rehydrate as they were listening to their coach in the huddle.

It was a funny sight because of the contrast. A tall, strong athlete picked up these small insignificant paper cups. I noticed the way he repeated this humble task with a sense of dignity and pride. I also saw in the few games when he did get playing time, the regular starters were overjoyed to bring the same cup of water to him during a time out. …