Homily – Blessing of our Newly Renovated School Gym

Sports leads us to a deeper relationship with God”

Talk given at the Blessing of the Newly Renovated Good Shepherd School Gym, September 6, 2013

Some people have asked me: Father, why are you blessing a Gym? What has that to do with religion? A lot, actually. Athletics has so much to do with our Catholic Faith, that I’ve written a full length talk on the subject, which you all will now have to suffer through!

Because Almighty God created us humans, body and soul, in His divine image, and also because God took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, the Catholic Church has always taught that the human body is good and holy, and therefore physical exercise which contributes to the well being of the body and even the soul is a good and holy thing.

For example, the great Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, over 800 years ago extolled the virtues of physical exercise for the purpose of renewing the mind.

In the Middle Ages of St. Thomas’ time, daily life for most people was very physically demanding, and a workout in itself. But in the 18- and 1900s, as more and more people moved away from farming and other vigorous physical labor to work in assembly line and white collar jobs, organized sports began to become very popular again for the first time since the ancient Greeks.

The Catholic Church gave its blessing to this new and  wide world of sports.  Great minds of the Church such as Blessed John Henry Newman in the mid 1800s taught of the great importance of physical education in a well rounded Catholic education.  In the mid 1900s, Pope Pius XII spoke frequently on the merits and virtues of playing sports to build Christian Character.

Blessed Pope John Paul II, who will be Canonized later this year, was probably the most athletic Pope and Saint ever. John Paul II was an avid soccer player, skier, mountain climber, and swimmer.  One of the first things he did as Pope was install an in ground swimming pool at his summer residence.  The Cardinals complained “Holy Father, that will be too expensive!”  He said “It will be cheaper than another conclave!”

Because of all this, the Catholic Church in our modern day has been a great patron and promoter of sports. Catholic Schools in America are known for their strong sports programs, and rightly so. Physical education isn’t optional, it is, in a way, essential and even foundational to all other education.

One great Catholic educator of 20th century, John Senior, wrote that the training of the body in athletics is the prerequisite to all other learning of the mind, because athletics sharpens our senses, and this in turn sharpens our minds, making one more able to mentally “hit the bulls eye”.  I have personally noticed that the better a person is athletically, the more mentally sharper that person is.

Not only Catholic schools, but also Catholic Parishes have been great patrons of organized sports.  30 years ago, when this Parish of St. Joseph had tons more kids than it does today, we had thriving CYO basketball, softball, baseball and volleyball teams for both boys and girls, as did all the parishes in Rhode Island.

The Church encouraged organized sports, because sports help us grow in the virtues of self-discipline, perseverance, team work and respect for authority.  Sport channels youthful energy in constructive, safe, and healthy ways.  Sports can even help build bridges of peace between peoples, countries and races.

I would encourage all of you boys and girls to get involved in the many sports programs here at Good Shepherd.  We have lots of great teams and great coaches, and whether you are a great athlete or not, you will have a great time if you join a team.  If there is one big regret I have in life, it is that I was never exposed to a good sports program and good coaches like this growing up. I think I would be a better, more effective priest today if I was.

Because the Church sees such value in Sports, just as Clergy and Catholic School teachers should realize what a very important role they have as educators and role models for our youth, so also should Catholic School Coaches realize what an important role they have, not only as Coaches, but also as role models for what it means to be a good Catholic and a disciple of Jesus. May God bless and strengthen all our Coaches, help them to be good Catholic role models, and reward them for their hard work and sacrifices for the good of our children.

Sports is a good thing, but like every other good thing in life it needs to have its proper place.

And so, amid the important weekly basketball, soccer, track and volleyball practices, we need to fit in the most important practice of the week, the practice of our faith:  namely, Sunday or Saturday afternoon Mass attendance.

Amid the important daily necessary physical exercises:  push ups, laps, drills, etc.; we need to make room for the even more important daily spiritual exercises: a minimum of 5 minutes of prayers, scripture reading, and examination of conscience each and every day, and not just at school.

A month ago, the local newspaper called me up and asked me what I thought of the new law which allows liquor stores to open at 10am on Sundays instead of Noon, whether I thought that would hurt Mass attendance.  I told them my gut reaction is that just as bad, if not worse, is the way all these sports games and practices for youth are being scheduled Sunday mornings.  I can’t count the number of times a kid has told me “I can’t get to church because I have games Sunday morning.”  Woe to us and our Catholic Schools if we ever start following the world in scheduling practices or games Sunday morning, or get so wrapped up in sports that we fall out of going to Church on a weekly basis.

And while sports can instill many virtues in a person, it can also instill vices in us if we aren’t careful.  We only have to look at the professional sports world to find lots of instances of pride, vanity, greed, steroid use, unchaste behavior, and other more serious sins among players and coaches. There’s also a tendency in our society to over-exalt sports figures, as seen in the exorbitant prices for a pro football game or the seven figure salaries some pro players get.

So may the Lord help us to use sports properly, that it may lead us to a deeper relationship with God, and not become a false god that we put over the One True God and His Commandments.

And so boys and girls, we pray today for God’s Blessing on all the teams who will play in this beautifully renovated gym in the days and years to come, especially the Good Shepherd Sharks!  On this gym floor, many of you will win many games, forge many friendships, learn to lose gracefully (especially when you play Fr. Woolley and the Friars in basketball!), and forge memories that will last a lifetime.   And in the midst of it all, you will, in a mysterious but real way, also encounter Jesus on the court with you, and grow in your Catholic Faith through the sports you play.

Lastly, I pray that all of us will always stay on Jesus’ team, the “Globe Trotters” known as the “Rom’n” Catholic Church.  May we all play well together on this team, knowing that each team member is a valued, vital member with unique gifts and talents that make the team great. With Jesus as our Team Coach and Team Captain, may we always “fight the good fight of faith,” and on this team, may we all “run the race” of life well, “so as to win the prize of eternal life” when this playing season of our earthly life is over.

September 6, 2013

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