Fr John O’Brien, OFM, who has many famous friends in the sporting world, ponders on “Sports, me and God!”
Sport as Communion
Mark Dowd made a documentary for Channel 4 on sport and how sport had displaced religion in many sectors and indeed the symbolism of religion had been integrated into sport. He wrote an article for the English Catholic paper, The Tablet, about football (those outside England call “football” “soccer”). He describes it as “offering a sense of communion and transcendence which the human psyche craves”. He goes on to say: “I sincerely hold that the game’s highs offer us a glimpse, a window if you will, into the kingdom of God: that parallel world where rampant individualisation is trumped, where the body of humanity will be united and connected by being held by the source of life that underpins all of creation” (‘For the Love of the Game’, The Tablet, 29 January 2005). I find his view thought-provoking. I knew many lonely people who find solace in sport. Many long for a depth relationship with God in Jesus but do not know how to find this. It is as if we inhabit different worlds – the world of sport and the world of religion.
In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio Pope John Paul II employs the example of Paul preaching to the Athenians in the Aeropages “in language appropriate to and understandable in these surroundings”. Bishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in January 2008 went on his ad limina visit to Benedict XVI; he was armed with statistics about his local church. He was surprised when the Pope asked him about “the points of contact between the Church in Ireland and those places where the future of Irish culture is being determined.” One of those areas is sport. The history of sport is linked with the history of States. This type of history is yet to be written. I think of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 during the Nazi reign and the myth of the “Superior race”! Jesse Owens dismantled this. In the Anchluss, the annexation of Austria, Austria Vienna was the best team in the world. There was a match between the Nazis and Austria Vienna. Austria Vienna was told to lose. They didn’t! The Nazis were “slain” on the sports field again. The spirit of the people cannot be crushed. The Nazis were given the first indications that their view of the world would not be the one that would win out. They did not like it. I think too of the ill-fated All-Ireland on Bloody Sunday, 1921 when the Black and Tans opened fire in Croke Park.
Sport as Culture
The second Vatican Council (1962-65) articulated in its closing document, Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the rationale for the relation of Christian faith and the reality that is the world, “The joy and the hope, the grief and the anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and life, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well (Gaudium et Spes, par 1). The document goes on to state that it “longs to set forth the way it understands the presence and function of the church in the world of today” (Gaudium et Spes, par 10). The Council emphasises an engagement of faith with the culture of today. Sport is part of our culture. The aim of the Church in the world is to promote human solidarity, the dignity of the person and the pursuit of justice and peace. The idea of culture is multiform and much more analysis would have to be done to define culture, to let us see who are, what roles are here in culture and how our culture shapes us and our view of God.
One of the ingredients of culture is sport. Sport has always helped me cope with life and the people I have met in sport have helped me and my life of faith. When I was facing an operation for cancer I lost my nerve for a little bit. I prayed – there was only silence from above. Then my mobile started ringing and texts flew in. People like Shaun Edwards, Phil Vickory, Lawrence Dallagio, Danny Cipriani, and others contacted me. Their humanity and care lifted me. My prayers were answered. I became calm. People phoned and texted to say (Marcus and “Madge”) they were praying for me just before I was called to go to theatre. All these people through their care and compassion were a living lesson to me on the value of compassion and I was more at peace. The surgery was successful and I began to live again and embrace life.
I know sport is imperfect – performance enhancing drugs, match fixing and irregular gambling. Under its headline “Gambling Nation”, The Independent (London) reported the following statistics for Britain: “£50million spent on betting in 2005, 700% increase in the amount gambled in the previous five years; the 2006 soccer World Cup reported to be the single largest gambling event in history” (25 May 2006). With the growth of gambling is the temptation to cheat. It also facilitates those who suffer from gambling addiction. This is just one instance of where sport can go bad. This summer (2010) there has been nothing but controversy about the Pakistan cricket team of England with reports of “sport-fixing” and “irregular gambling patterns”. Yet in this book I acknowledge these can be a dark face to sport. But by the same token there is also light. People like George Best, Andy Ripley meant much to me when I was young. They lit up my life and the life of others.
This reflection isn’t meant to be a theology of sport; that remains for the future. Rather it is storytelling or just “yarning” (telling yarns). Stories and how they are told are part of the world I grew up in. I think of my old uncle Pat in Tuam describing a trip on the West Clare railway. He was a train driver. I would be fascinated by his stories – all along the line lurked the American Indians, the Black and Tans and many others. The stories were tall, but the fun lay in sitting around the fire and hearing him tell us of his ‘adventures’ in West Clare. That’s what I like to do in this little work. The stories themselves and the little sayings of wise people (and not so wise) have their own significance. Some are humorous, a few are sad but all of them help with living life as best one can.
I remember a story of when I was younger. The English Rugby team arrived in Dublin and the team got out and checked into the Shelburne Hotel. Then a hippy came behind them on his motorbike. He handed his key to the concierge and asked him to help find his book. He was part of the English team – Andy Ripley (no. 8). We loved him as young people! He was a free spirit and played rugby that way.
Years later I was with Shaun in London. We watched Wasps A team in Healy. Then Shaun announced that he had a dinner engagement in Central London. He had forgotten to tell me. We arrived late for the meal. Money exchanged hands at the table as we arrived. Bets had been taken as to whether we would make it and at what time we would arrive from Healy (if we did arrive). Then I heard the master of ceremonies announce that the speeches were about to begin. I groaned inwardly! Then he announced it was the incredible Mister Ripley who was to speak. I sat bolt upright. It was a moving speech. Andy had cancer and had only a little time to live. It was funny and moving at the same time.
I did not think I would meet Andy. The event I was at was the annual sportswriter’s dinner. Shaun freed me from somebody who had honed in on me and was, well, boring, very boring. He introduced me to a friend of his called ‘Rochey’! I have talked to front-row forwards. They are a special breed. I asked Rochey who was then in charge of the English Scrum was it true that front row forwards have faces only a mother could love. He screwed up his face and said “yes”. Behind us I heard a gentle laugh – it was Andy. I introduced myself and a new friendship was forged. Andy made a recovery and encouraged me in my writing. He helped me write what would become the book “Love Rescue Me”. His cancer came back and he passed away this year. Before he died he found out I had cancer. He moved heaven and hell to get in touch with me to give me courage. This was the last time we spoke. I had tried to help him and now in by hour of need he helped me. He and his family also sent me a beautiful card when I began my recovery.