February 2, 2007

Be Our Guest / John Shaughnessy

Do the Colts have a prayer in the Super Bowl?

Admit it, Colts’ fans.

As Tom Brady of the New England Patriots walked to the line of scrimmage with less than three minutes to go in the American Football Conference Championship game, more than a few of you actually prayed that the cool, collected quarterback with the assassin’s eyes wouldn’t complete a third-down pass that would give the Patriots a first down—and the likely opportunity to run out the clock for a 34-31 victory.

And after that prayer was answered, more than a few of you began bargaining with God as Peyton Manning lined up in the shotgun, knowing the Colts had just two minutes and 17 seconds to drive 80 yards for the tying field goal or the go-ahead touchdown.

Please, God, I know you’re busy and I know you just answered my latest prayer, but if you could just help the Colts score a touchdown, I promise to …

And all across Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, and wherever Colts’ fans sweated and worried on the evening of Jan. 21, the bargains were offered and the promises made: I really, really promise to be nice to my little sister this time, God. And I’ll clean my room and do my homework every night without my parents bugging, er, asking me.

God, I will hang on every single word of every single homily that my parish priest gives for the next six months—no, make it a year.

This Lent, I’m there for you, Lord. All 40 days in the pews and not a single day off from giving up candy, beer, ice cream or television. Just please, puh-leeeze, don’t let our hearts be broken again.

And after that prayer for the go-ahead touchdown was answered, we all know it didn’t stop more than a few of you from asking again for divine intervention with about a minute still left in the game.

In fact, the multitudes of people who clutched their rosary beads, whispered a silent prayer or offered some desperate, life-changing bargain undoubtedly increased exponentially as Brady began to march the Patriots down the field toward one of the last-minute comebacks that have made him so famous and feared.

And when Colts’ defensive back Marlin Jackson intercepted a Brady pass to clinch the Colts’ appearance in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, only God knew the extent of the overflowing bounty of bargains and promises that Colts’ fans had made to him in those final three breath-taking minutes.

Yet, even an overly conservative estimate of those bargains would leave you with the thought that if all those promises were kept, the Colts’ universe suddenly would be marked by a wondrous increase of clean homes, loving siblings, studious children, helpful husbands, packed churches, charitable neighbors and completely attentive parishioners during homilies.

You have kept your bargain, right?

After all, the Colts still have to beat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl before being declared world champions.

Of course, this raises the question of whether it’s theologically proper for people to pray for the success of their favorite sports teams.

Figuring theological experts have more important questions to ponder, I searched elsewhere for answers, finding some perspective in the actions of two priests from the archdiocese.

In a school Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on the Friday before the AFC Championship, members of the eighth-grade class offered a number of petitions for prayers—petitions that focused on the weighty concerns of humanity, such as praying for the sick and the homeless. The Colts were never mentioned until Father William Munshower, now a chaplain at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, said he thought it would be fine to pray for the Colts.

A day later, at the Saturday evening Mass at St. Thomas, another round of personal, humane and worldly petitions for prayers was offered from the altar and the pews, again skipping the Colts—at least until Father Steven Schwab, the pastor, asked aloud, “Well, should we pray for the Colts?” While people smiled and laughed, Father Schwab completed the backdoor petition and the churchgoers responded, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

If history offers any perspective, praying for sports teams is a Catholic tradition, tied deeply to a time when priests and religious sisters routinely led Catholic school children in praying for the Fighting Irish football team of the University of Notre Dame, a school named in honor of Mary, the mother of God—a school where a mural of Christ upraising his arms, on the front of the school’s library, has been dubbed “Touchdown Jesus.”

(By the way, being a Notre Dame fan, I know the Fighting Irish football team could use a few more of your prayers, especially when playing in a bowl game or against the University of Southern California. My bargaining with God and the Blessed Mother already has me booked with good intentions through 2015.)

So as the Colts prepare for the Super Bowl, the connection between faith and football seems firmly established among Catholics, even as we recognize there are far more important concerns in the world to offer our prayers to God.

So do the Colts have a prayer in the Super Bowl?

Bears’ fans don’t think so, but you Colts’ fans believe. Your faith bolstered by the dramatic comeback against the Patriots, you are convinced the Colts have more than a prayer. But, just in case, you’re undoubtedly ready to offer a few million more prayers, promises and bargains with God this weekend.

When it comes to faith and football, you have to believe. †

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of the Criterion.)

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