Sports contributes to the love of life; teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility; and leads to the full development of the human person, according to the Church.
What does it mean to play sports “the Catholic way”? It has nothing to do with Hail Mary passes, or with all the exercise Catholics get at Mass from constantly standing and kneeling. Rather, a Catholic attitude toward sports and athletic activities sees them as a way of achieving the good of the human person and society as a whole.
When sports are played for the sake of those higher goals, they are not only a gift from God, but a sign that reveals God. Think of the most breath-taking thing you’ve ever seen an athlete do. Whatever it was, that achievement reflected the athlete operating at the highest possible level physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Our own spirits soar at moments like that because, in that fantastic achievement, the athlete becomes a sign of the physical, mental, spiritual, and social perfection that all human beings are destined to realize in God. “The glory of God is man fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus famously said.
“Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ moment,” I imagine some reader objecting. “I can see a physical and mental angle to sports, and I guess the social angle would involve the team, the coaches, the opponents, the fans, and so on, but how are sports spiritual?”
Well, all human activity has a spiritual aspect to it, because a person is the union of a body and soul, but the spiritual aspect of sports is seen most clearly in its ascetic practices. Asceticism is the spiritual practice of self-denial and sacrifice for the sake of some greater good. For Christians, the ultimate model of asceticism can be found in the choice of the Son of God to empty himself and become a man, and then to die on the cross for the sake of all humanity. And if you are an athlete, you will recognize that such asceticism is key to performing well.
It is also the spiritual aspect of sports that helps participants to make the good of the human person—themselves, their competitors, and society as a whole—their top priority.
So, how does the way you play sports line up with those ideals? Take this short quiz, which is drawn from the teaching of the Church on sports. For each item, rate yourself on a scale of one to five, where “one” means, “This is the first time I’ve ever given this any thought,” and “five” means, “I’ve got this covered!” Add up your score and triple it to get your point total.
___ I respect my body by eating and sleeping well, and by playing in a way that doesn’t cause long-term harm to my body.
___ I respect my opponents as human beings by playing in a spirit of friendly competition that pushes us to become “fully alive.”
___ I follow the rules of the game.
___ I watch out for players who are weaker than me, making sure that everyone gets a chance to develop their full potential.
___ I make sacrifices not only for the good of my game but for the good of myself and others.
___ I discipline my will to push the boundaries of my physical limits.
___ I practice loyalty to my teammates, my coach, and above all, to God.
___ I am not obsessed with physical perfection, but thank God for the body he gave me.
___ I put the practice of my faith before the practice of my sport, including observing Sundays and other holy days.
___ Before events, I ask God to help me become more fully alive through my sport, and I offer my best effort as a gift back to him.
To read more about Church teaching on sports, download the free document, “John Paul II Speaks to Athletes” from the John Paul II Foundation for Sport, or visit their website at JohnPaul2Foundation4Sport.org.
Points: Your quiz score x3
Sport . . . contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.
—Pope John Paul II, Homily on the Jubilee of Sports People