When I was 11 years old, my summertime routine looked like this: Get up, eat a hurried breakfast, grab my baseball glove and bat, hop on my bike, pedal the few blocks to the ball field and play all day.
Fast-forward 60 years and not much has changed: I’m doing the same thing, including pedaling my bicycle to the field. Now, the game is senior softball. It’s a several-times-a-week regimen that I love as much as when I was 11.
Sports is a passion, and most of us indulge, either as players or as fans or as both. When it comes to sports, I’m pretty much a novice, except for my indulgence in softball. I don’t really follow major league baseball and only occasionally join my wife in front of the TV cheering her pro football teams.
But for many Americans — including many Catholics — following sports is almost a second religion, albeit a secular one.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider all the temples dedicated to sports worship. Just ask a Green Bay Packers fan about the hallowed halls of Lambeau Field or a Yankee fan about Yankee Stadium.
There’s more. Instead of bread and wine, it’s beer and peanuts. There are songs and shouted exclamations to team veneration. Quasi-liturgical clothing and bodily decorations also exhibit adoration. There are players who are worshipped as minor deities. Some, not so minor, even despite glaring personal failures.
Yes, we do love our sports. And that’s sometimes a problem. Because sports can also bring out the worst in us.
We can fight and even riot, all because our team won a big championship. Or lost. It doesn’t seem to matter. Too many big-name collegiate matchups have ended with cars being set afire. The recent shameful episode following a Final Four NCAA basketball game involving the University of Kentucky wasn’t the first and sadly won’t be the last.
Perhaps more important, the passion that some of us have for sports distracts us from more vital human endeavors. When we concentrate on who’s getting big bucks for catching a little ball, we can overlook the struggles facing the poor and needy and other societal woes often cited in homilies and other church teaching.
Nevertheless, sports and faith are not opposites. Sports draws from faith and points back to faith.
Certainly there are biblical references to sports. St. Paul even uses the imagery of a boxer or runner in a race. Pope Francis, also, is steeped in sports. Soccer, mostly in his native Argentina. And he’s mentioned that love a number of times during his papacy.
However, Pope Francis sees sports as much more than a contest in which one team wins and another loses. He sees it in terms of sportsmanship, something that draws people together. In July, 2014, Pope Francis’ general intentions included a prayer “that sports may always be occasions of human fraternity and growth.”
The pope has also supported sports — and sportsmanship — with more than words. Last September, he hosted an international, interfaith soccer game in Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
Despite the constant conflicts in the world, players were drawn from an interreligious background: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists. “This game is symbolic,” the pope said before the match, “of the union of team members in which no one plays for themselves, but rather for one another.” Pope Francis called such efforts “the seed of peace.”
Sports and faith also share one more constant: prayer. That’s right. A 2014 poll determined that 20 percent of us pray for our sports teams, somehow believing that God will favor our players over their opponents. (Except Notre Dame. After all, God always roots for the Irish!)
Tom Sheridan is a former editor of the Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. He writes from Ocala, Fla.