This article is the final in a series of nine on The Christian Athlete, authored by Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas, professor of human movement science in the School of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Costa Rica.
The Catholic athlete who lives as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ naturally desires to be a witness, to share his or her faith with others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to coin a phrase that would be remembered by posterity? One that comes to mind is the comment by Michael Jordan (or was it Wayne Gretzky?): “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” But that is not a specifically Christian quote. What about the line from the American gymnast Gabby Douglas, “I give all the glory to God. It's kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him, and the blessings fall down on me”? I am sure you are familiar with many more examples, but let me share another: Keylor Navas, the outstanding goalie from Costa Rica who won three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid, is known and criticized for kneeling and praying before every game – not in the locker room, but on the field.
At the same time, Jesus himself exhorts us to pray and perform our acts of charity and piety in private:
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:1-6).
Wow! The first few verses are clearly in contrast to what we see happening with some popular athletes and artists who love to show off their generous contributions to charity. I expect there must be many more who are doing exactly what Jesus says in Mathew 6, but they are doing it so well… that we do not see them!
Are there any other options for witnessing options open to the Catholic athlete? Roberto Cipriani gives us a few important ideas. Quoting Pope Pius XII, he explains how the cultivation of virtues can make a difference:
Sports education aims to form youth in the requisite virtues; namely, among others, loyalty which prohibits resorting to subterfuge, docility and obedience to the wise orders of those who guide team drills, a willingness if necessary not to shine but to be in the shade for the benefit of the team, fidelity to all commitments, humility in victory, generosity toward the defeated, serenity in the face of adversity, patience toward the not-always-moderate public, justice if competitive sports are tied to openly agreed financial interests, and chastity and temperance in general, already recommended by the ancients. All these virtues, though having as their object a physical, exterior activity, are genuine Christian virtues, which cannot be acquired without a religious inner spirit and, may we add, without frequent recourse to prayer.
That certainly adds a new dimension to the training program! Furthermore, quoting Pope Paul VI – also known as Papa Montini – Cipriani writes:
On March 20, 1965, Papa Montini gathered with the participants of the Eighth National Congress of the Italian Sports Center and he exhorted: ‘May you be, especially in such a delicate and promising field, the yeast which makes the dough ferment (cf. Matthew 13:33), the pleasing aroma of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:15). Your presence, beyond contributing to the improvement of the technical aspects of Italian sports, should be a sign, a reminder, a light; it should elevate and cheer; it should establish fraternal connections of Christian friendship among athletes; it should facilitate the sacramental encounter with Christ the Savior; it should courageously uphold human and Christian values in all aspects of athletic practice.
These two popes suggest that there are multiple ways for us to work on our character. Beyond simply wearing a T-shirt with a Bible verse (forbidden by most sports leagues) or saying a memorable phrase during an interview, the Catholic athlete lets Christ and the Holy Spirit work in him or her in such a way that their lives are transformed and their faith sheds its subtle light on all they touch.
To view the complete series with full citations as hosted by the University of Costa Rica, click here.