Notre Dame football brings together, in a pleasing way, religion and sports, even if the Fighting Irish got whupped in the national final. CNS photo/Jeff Haynes, Reuters

Glimpsing holiness through the joy of sport

  • January 9, 2013

AVE MARIA, FLORIDA - Notre Dame football brings together religion and sports in a particularly pleasing way, and for this football chaplain to be on hand in Miami for the college football national championship — Notre Dame vs. Alabama — was a blessing most pleasing indeed. It was a more conflicted blessing after the opening kickoff, from which point Alabama administered a severe beating to Notre Dame en route to its third national championship in four years.

Bowl games are great public liturgy. The championship was a secular spectacular with echoes of the sacred, and not just because the pre-game Notre Dame chant for “Manti T’eo” sounded very much like the “Giovanni Paolo” one used to hear at World Youth Day, or that the choreography of the marching bands would put to shame even the most complicated rubrics of a pontifical Mass.

I extended my visit to Florida for a day to visit Ave Maria University, the Catholic university founded by Tom Monaghan, along with the accompanying town, also named Ave Maria. Michael Novak, one of the great influences on my thinking, has taken up residence here after retiring from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and so it was a propitious occasion for us to meet.

Of course, Professor Novak was at the game too. A man passionate about his Catholic faith, his scholarship in Catholic social teaching and his commitment to mentor the young, Novak is almost as passionate about Notre Dame football. As a young man he was an aspirant for the Holy Cross Fathers and studied at Notre Dame for many years. The priesthood wasn’t his calling, but theology was, and as a layman became one of the most influential American theologians of his generation.

When he began writing about theology and economics in the 1970s, Catholic thinking was often suspicious of economic activity and frequently hostile to free markets. Novak challenged the regnant view and invited Catholics to think about economics not as grubby grasping after filthy lucre, but as a great arena of human freedom. It is in the economy that man co-operates with others to provide for his needs and those who depend upon him, employing his creativity as one made in the image of God.

Novak’s most important book was published in 1982, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism — a book so influential that it was passed around by the underground resistance behind the Iron Curtain. He taught us in that book to seek the spark of the divine in the mundane worlds of economics and politics. This football trip to Florida occasioned re-reading another of his books, The Joy of Sports, which glimpsed that same divine spark in baseball, basketball, soccer and various other sports, but above all in football. Readers will find in Novak’s 1976 book why he is not a theologian of economics as much as a theologian of freedom.

“Play is the most human activity,” Novak writes. “It is the first act of freedom. It is the first origin of law. (Watch even an infant at play, whose first act is marking out the limits, the rules, the roles… The first free act of the human is to assign the limits within which freedom can be at play.)

“Play is not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food or shelter,” Novak continues. “Play is human intelligence, and intuition, and love of challenge and contest and struggle; it is respect for limits and laws and rules, and high animal spirits, and a lust to develop the art of doing things perfectly.”

Children learn by playing that their arms and legs belong to them and what marvelous things they can do with them. They also learn how to co-operate and share and — being free creatures discovering the wide world of sin too — how to be beastly to their brothers and sisters.

Teenagers and adults learn from their play too. Many a young man lazy and selfish in almost all respects learns discipline and obedience in sports. Novak’s point goes even deeper though, for in sports we construct a world in which sacrifice for a greater allegiance is the norm, that we might develop this essentially human habit. In the confines of sports we learn how to put our freedom toward a great end.

In the roar of the stadium there is something approaching common purpose for a great cause, not unlike authentic communion for an ultimate cause in the liturgy. It can be corrupted; that goes without saying at anything organized by the NCAA. The frenzied roar of the crowd on Monday night in Miami was, one expects, what it sounded like in the ancient Colosseum, which ought to give a Christian pause. Anything though can be corrupted, even the sacred liturgy itself.

Yet sports need not be. And when they are not, there can be joy, there can be beauty and more than a glimpse of holiness. Even when Notre Dame gets whupped.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:


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