June 04, 2010

The Unity of Sports

By Fr. Joshua Allen *

I admit that I have always had an affinity for Clint Eastwood.  My Dad was a huge fan of his movies, so I grew up with Dirty Harry making my day, all things good, bad, and ugly, including zany orangutans, pink Cadillacs, and no shortage of raspy guttural one-liners.  I remember seeing “Unforgiven” in the movie theatre.  As a kid, I hated the movie—it was the non-Western—some sort of move to show realism, and I didn’t like it one bit.  As I got older, I came to appreciate it, and now I love it. 

While some of Eastwood’s movies have been controversial, I have appreciated his efforts in this decade to capture realism in his films—the complexities of the situations in which folks find themselves often make clear-cut decisions difficult.
I recently saw Eastwood’s new film “Invictus” for the first time.  The movie is about Nelson Mandela in the early years of his Presidency in the just post-Apartheid South Africa.  The movie depicts the unlikely victory of the South African rugby team over the favored New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup.  Now, as I am from the South, I don’t know a thing about rugby (although the movie certainly makes it look fun), but from the quality of Eastwood’s movie, the complexities of the situation Mandela was facing in his fledgling nation come through clearly. 
Mandela faced a difficult situation, and he handled it (at least in the movie) with splendid tact and compassion.  Mandela spent some 30 years in prison on an island off of the coast of Cape Town. When he was released and ascended to the presidency of the nation, he communicated the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation to his people.  Over and over again in the film, we are presented with the seeming impossibility of forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of a rapidly changing environment where the former white oppressors suddenly found themselves a threatened, powerless minority. 
Mandela seizes the opportunity that the World Cup of Rugby presents to his nation, since it will be held in South Africa.  In doing so, Mandela takes a huge gamble, but it is one that I daresay all of us understand. He was counting on the uniting force of sport to bring distrusting and diverse groups together.   In the movie, he was wildly successful in his efforts.
Any coach knows the secret to sports.  There is something in human beings that unites us when we are locked in combat as a team to accomplish something together that we could never do on our own.  There is something about the experience that directs our gaze towards what we hold in common, and it is in that commonality that we are united. 
Here at the North American College, we participate in an event called the Clericus Cup, which is a soccer tournament between the various seminaries in Rome (there are a mess of them).  Our team, the North American Martyrs, has in recent years been a frontrunner for the Clericus Cup trophy, and there is no doubt that there are many men in the house that are very much looking forward to winning it one day (we placed second this year).  Soccer is an up-and-coming sport in the United States, but it was not really played in my area when I was growing up, so I don’t have a tremendous amount of interest in it. Nevertheless, I can’t help rooting for the home team.  And more than just rooting for my seminary, I am rooting for the United States, since we are the only American team represented in the tournament.  It’s a beautiful thing to see the Stars and Stripes waving on a field so far from home.
But it is not the game that really interests me (after all, it’s not college football).  What interests me is how the entire house is united behind the team.  The players practice hard all year for the tournament.  They sacrifice a good deal of their free time; they miss a number of community events; they are able to travel less freqently; they have to deal with more injuries, and they have less time to do all of the other things that we are required to do in seminary.
But they do it.  And they have a great time.  And even though some seminarian might not know a player particularly well, each of us feels a closeness to them individually and as a team.  This is precisely because they are representing us—“us” as the North American College, and “us” as the United States.  We are all focused on and desirous of the same goal: victory.  In the journey of seeking that victory, we receive a priceless gift along the way: unity and fellowship.
It is a great gift from God to be included in a “we.”  Unity—true unity that seeks a common good—is a true grace.  Winning that cup is nice—it really is—but what really matters is the process of winning it.
My class has just finished its pre-ordination evaluations.  We arrived in Rome three years ago with a certain union.  We were all seeking the same end: to do the will of God as we knew it at that time, which was to attend seminary.  We were united in our goal.  But what has happened over the last three years is that we have become united in a deeper way through the process.  The goal is not enough. Jesus came to offer us the goal of eternal life, but he also showed us the means for achieving it in fellowship and sacrifice for God and neighbor.  The disciples loved him not because he opened the way to heaven, but because they walked with him each step of the way.  Something happens while watching a football game in a stadium that produces a unity among fans; and something has happened to my class in the process of being formed for the priesthood.  I don’t know quite what it is, but it must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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