By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published December 22, 2008 | En Español
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” The famous opening line from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” summarized two different stories that I heard within a 24-hour period last week. Two Catholic gentlemen told me about two individual football games that had occurred on two separate occasions, and the events could not have been more dissimilar. The games both involved two Catholic schools as opponents. The rivalries were legendary, but the contests involved behavior that inspired one gentleman while the other man was quite embarrassed by what he witnessed.
The first involved a football game between Boston College and Notre Dame University. There are obviously many alumni and alumni parents living in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and they all know the level of competition that those games always engender. After a particularly spirited encounter between those universities, a Boston College family from Atlanta attended the Saturday evening Mass at the Sacred Heart Basilica on the Notre Dame campus—fully clothed in the BC attire that probably made them conspicuous participants at the Eucharist that evening. After Mass, a Notre Dame family greeted them outside of church and welcomed them to share in the “tailgating” party that they were hosting in the parking lot. So BC and Notre Dame shared the Eucharist and then shared food and drink after the game. Since that impromptu encounter, both families, who did not know one another before that game, have exchanged e-mails and greetings—and no doubt “sports trash talk” about their beloved universities. It was such an unusual encounter that it must have reflected the spirit that these two families first discovered most perfectly at the Lord’s Altar and then realized again in friendship in the parking lot!
The other football game took place here between two of our Catholic high schools. The encounter was very different in its outcome. During the heat of the game a couple of parents began challenging each other and the dialogue got pretty impassioned and abusive. The observer who shared the encounter with me was embarrassed and disappointed that the enthusiasm that the adults had for the game resulted in quite unchristian behavior. That type of behavior at sporting events regrettably is all too frequent. What makes it shameful is that the participants are Catholics who recently may have shared the Eucharist together and who should have known better than to demonstrate not just unsportsmanlike behavior, but unchristian conduct. While some folks might be willing to dismiss the episode as the result of “two hotheads” getting out of control, the witness who shared the story with me felt that many people who observed the exchange were embarrassed, offended and ashamed—most noticeably the youngsters who were present.
There are a number of programs that have been developed to help adults use sports as a source of faith and character development for our youngsters, including one that Notre Dame University has created—“Play Like a Champion Today.” There are other such programs within the Church that have the same intent: to help our kids see sports as an opportunity to grow in their religious identity and values as well as their athletic prowess.
These two stories happen to detail how deeply most of us take our loyalty to our sports teams. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It all depended on where you happened to have been at the moment.