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Symposium is First Step in Responding to Vatican Document

Bishop Donald Hying Opens the Symposium

In his letter marking the release of Giving the Best of Yourself, Pope Francis called sport a place “where we can experience the joy of competing to reach a goal together, participating in a team, where success or defeat is shared and overcome.” While true of athletic competition, the remark is also fitting for those who descended on Notre Dame this month for a Symposium on the Church and Sport. Marked by a common vision of sport as ministry, the group of leaders from across the country joined together to discuss the Vatican’s landmark document on sport and embark on a mission of responding to the Church’s call in our communities.

The March 7th Symposium was hosted by the University of Notre Dame under the leadership of Dr. Clark Power, founder of the Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series and a long-time professor specializing in moral development and education in the University’s Program of Liberal Studies. Inspired by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life’s 2018 release of Giving the Best of Yourself, Power gathered clergy and lay leaders from across America to discuss the pastoral ministry of the Church in the context of sport and the proper response to the Church’s call.

After opening with a celebration of the Mass, the day began with comments by Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, who highlighted the global power of sport and the importance of harnessing that power for good. Noting that sport does not afford the opportunity to engage in prejudice or selfishness in a modern environment where “a focus on self is increasingly the approach,” he suggested that sport “offers a paradigm that if we attempt to pursue faith or build community solely on an individual basis without help, we won’t succeed.” Swarbrick concluded that we should “use sport to help build a better society, to help build better relationships and to help build faith.”

Video of each of the day’s keynotes and panel can be viewed online by clicking here.

The Most Reverend Donald J Hying, Bishop of Gary, IN served as moderator. In his opening remarks, he called coaches a “bridge” to “lead (student-athletes) to understand God, to know themselves, to discover their gifts, to grow in virtue and to understand what it means to be a human person fully alive.” Hying noted that the Catholic Church remains “one the of the largest sponsors of sport globally and in (America),” and called the church’s voice prophetic, “because we stand for a broader vision which helps make sense of sports in that wider context of Christian excellence.”

Following speakers, small group discussions were at the heart of the Symposium’s mission. Notes from those discussions have been gathered by organizers to form the event’s formal response, which will include a letter to United States Bishops that summarizes the vision of participants and makes recommendations for the Church’s response in American dioceses.

The morning session featured two more important presentations from Fr. Patrick Kelly, SJ and an expert panel titled Youth Sports and the Church’s Pastoral Ministry. Kelly, who was heavily involved in the creation of Giving the Best of Yourself, spoke about the Catholic tradition of sports and “play.” Drawing from the Vatican document, his presentation highlighted important themes such as encounter, unity and inclusion, citing avid sportsman Saint John Paul II who said that “Sport is at the service of the person and not the person at the service of sport.” Kelly posited that because the human being is fundamentally social, sports should foster the common good. “One of the most important ways in the United States that young people are introduced to the common good,” he suggested “is by playing on a team. They realize they are a part of something larger than themselves.”

A panel concluded the morning by addressing a pastoral action plan designed to live the vision of Giving the Best of Yourself. Noting that the document calls for the establishment of an apostolate for sports, panelist Kristin Sheehan of Play Like a Champion pointed out that those gathered for the symposium constituted such a group of leaders, committed to the mission of pastoral ministry through sport. The panel covered the document’s four key elements of sports done well: serving the human person, creating a culture of inclusion, understanding sports as an opportunity to create encounter, peace and mercy, and developing sports’ “pastoral workers” through proper training. Villanova theology professor Ed Hastings led off the panel, followed by Mike Poole of Positive Outlook, Vince Guider of Old Saint Pat’s Church in Chicago, and Sheehan. Powerful examples from Hastings, Poole and Guider illustrated the practical application of these themes in our local communities while highlighting the need to properly form those who coach our children and lead youth sports organizations through mandatory coach training programs.

The Symposium’s afternoon session was book-ended by group discussions and a compelling presentation by Phil Andrew, Director of Violence Prevention Initiatives for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Through a combination of his incredible personal story and his career with the FBI, Andrew developed the connection between sports ministry and reducing violence in our local communities. Drawing parallels between coaching and crisis management, he relayed how understanding each person’s five basic needs – security, recognition, control, dignity and accomplishment – can help us to develop relationships that not only resolve conflict but create the sort of meaningful culture of service, inclusion and encounter promoted in the Church’s vision for sport.

In a letter to Symposium attendees Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life praised the event while reinforcing the value of sports in our communities. “The Church values the unique and important place of sports in people’s lives,” he wrote. If Giving the Best of Yourself demonstrated a call to pastoral ministry in this important place, the March 7th Symposium marks the first step in a practical response to that call. Those gathered agreed that a unified approach is critical, with Bishops and clergy working together with lay leaders to emphasize a culture of sport that provides access to all children, transcends boundaries and upholds the virtues outlined in the Vatican’s document. They also agreed that action is key; the faithful must take real steps in local communities to enact change and continue the momentum built over the past year.

Of sport, Pope Francis has said that “The bond between the Church and the world of sports is a beautiful reality that has strengthened over time, for the Ecclesial Community sees in sports a powerful instrument for the integral growth of the human person.” This reality was on full display during the symposium, as the vision of those present inspired renewed hope in the great potential of sport. As leaders were sent forth at the event’s end, a sense of excitement was present. “There’s a lot of work to do,” someone said with a smile. “This is just the beginning.”

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