Sport, Spirituality and Seniors
One of my earliest childhood memories is of the Italia ’90, the 1990 Soccer World Cup Finals. It was the first time that the Republic of Ireland reached the finals and the team, affectionately known as Jack’s Army, was under the direction of Jack Charlton. New anthems were written, there was a run on Credit Union loans to finance fans visiting Italy and the nation truly held it’s breath at the penalty shoot-out against Romania. On returning home after the finals, Jack’s Army received a hero’s welcome.
A memorable part of this particular sporting pilgrimage was the papal audience that the Irish team attended with Pope John Paul II. It seemed as if it was part of a divinely ordered plan that the Irish team should participate in the World Cups Finals in Italy and benefit from a papal blessing. Video clips of the papal audience show a buoyant and youthful Pope John Paul II joke and laugh with the Irish team players. Pope John II himself is remembered as a keen sportsperson, a goal-keeper in his youth and during his time as a priest and bishop he used skiing trips in Communist Poland as a method to bring families and young people together to discuss their faith. It is natural that during his pontificate, Pope John Paul II would establish a special department in the Vatican to foster relations between the Church and the world of sport.
Sport from a Biblical Perspective
While the Bible does not provide a manual for the playing of sports, it does provide a framework for sports people to guide them in their preparations and in the realisation that a win-at-all-costs approach to sports is far from healthy. Sporting analogies are frequently used in the writings of St Paul, in particular in his letters to Timothy and to the Corinthians. Paul is very much aware of the role that the Isthmian Games plays in the lives of the people of Corinth. One of the most famous quotes of Paul relates to sport: I have run the good race, I have fought the good fight, and I have kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7). Earlier in his second letter to Timothy, Paul speaks about the importance of fair play and playing by the rules: take an athlete; he cannot win any crown unless he has kept all the rules (2 Tim 2:5). Paul reminds the people of Corinth that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Later on in his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks from his own experience of being an athlete and directs people to run for the race of glory that will never fade (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Sport as Fostering Community
Many sporting organisations are dynamic in nature and they often serve a purpose beyond the playing of their respective sport. After the actual games have been completed, fundraising efforts serve to bring people together. Sports foster and develop communities and can provide a connection to a local community. Social gatherings provide an opportunity to acknowledge team-work, best practice and highlight those who dedicate themselves to the service of others. In the current economic climate sporting organisations can offer an inexpensive way to gather people together for a common purpose, provide leisure activities for the benefit of all and create a balance to an individualistic mindset.
Within sporting organisations there are codes of practice which affect the lives of sports people beyond the time spent on the playing fields. These include don’t drink and drink campaigns, anti-racism endeavours and give respect get respect projects, amongst many others. In January 2011 the GAA launched a project called the GAA Social Initiative. This aims to counter-act the problem of isolation in areas where older people have limited engagement with the community.
Sport and Seniors
It has been my experience of getting to know and befriend elderly Irish people that many will fondly recall sporting events from their youth or even from more recent times. These could range from England famously wining the World Cup in 1966 to the games they played in the school yard or on the local pitch where they may have represented their local club, county or parish with pride.
Maybe in these summer months it might be an opportunity for you to call or reconnect with an elderly neighbour, relation or friend and spend some time discussing their passion for sport and spirituality. They might have medals from their youth or would like to share with you who were the famous players they supported when they were growing into maturity. I imagine that many people who have reached their senior years would really appreciate your visit and the time you spend with them. If you would like to volunteer with the Irish Chaplaincy and visit some elderly Irish people, please feel free to contact us as the Irish Chaplaincy centre.
St Thomas Aquinas taught that exercise was medicine for the soul. The Church as an expert in humanity (Paul VI) and as the Good Samaritan of humanity (John Paul II) firmly believes and promotes the positive aspects of sport and leisure. In the Jubilee Year 2000 reminded that every Christian is called to be a strong athlete of Christ and a faithful and courageous witness to the Gospel. To succeed in this, Christians must persevere in prayer, be trained in virtue and follow the divine Master (Jubilee of Sport’s People 2000). Cardinal Rylko, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, recognizes that “some in the church see sport as a threat as it can take time away from the sacredness of Sunday, and yet it is important that we begin to see sport as an attraction for young people to be drawn to the Church. The relationship between sport and faith dates well back into history.” (Address at ‘Sport, Education and Faith: Towards a New Season for Catholic Sports Associations,’ November 2009). In the Irish Chaplaincy we believe in a holistic care of the person and an engagement with the world of sport marks a positive and meaningful step for Church, sport and society coming together to support our elderly Irish community in London.
Dr Rory Mac Giolla Chomhaill is a pastoral outreach worker with the Irish Seniors Project in the Irish Chaplaincy.