September 12, 2014

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

‘Does God care about sports?’ Yes, and Notre Dame fans say his mother does, too

The overwhelmingly negative response to the question surprised me, especially since I asked it of a group of about 50 people who are mostly Catholic and avid sports fans. It’s a question that won’t likely be confused with deep theological thought, but it has intrigued me for years: “Does God care about sports?”

When I asked the group how many of them believe that God cares about sports, no one raised a hand for a long 10 seconds. Then in the back of the room, one man lifted his right hand—slowly. Seconds later, so did another person—me. No one else joined us.

Of course, I realize that many people reason that God has many more important concerns to consider in this world. Yet I also see some evidence for my belief in one of the dramatic, down-to-the-wire games in Notre Dame football history.

It was the kind of finish where Irish fans promise God that they will change their lives for the better if he will let this latest comeback attempt become a reality. And the promises were even more grand than usual because the game was against the hated Michigan Wolverines, who were winning.

Standing in Notre Dame Stadium on that day in 1980, my father-in-law, Al Carson, lowered his head and made his own prayers and promises as Harry Oliver trotted onto the field to try the most desperate of field-goal attempts: 51 yards, into a strong wind, with just seconds remaining. Call it the “Hail Mary” of field goal attempts.

The ball was snapped, and a hush fell over the stadium. As Oliver kicked the ball, everyone held their breath, and few people noticed that the flags around the top of the stadium went limp, signaling that the wind had suddenly died. The ball kept rising and rising toward the goalposts. As it began its descent, fans leaned into one another, clutched one another and whispered one last prayer—“Please, God!”

As the ball cleared—just barely—the crossbar of the goalposts, teammates mobbed Oliver, students stormed the field, and the shouts of 60,000 suddenly best friends echoed towards the heavens—where some saint was busily listing and calculating all the promises and pledges that Irish fans had made.

It was another “miracle” finish for the Fightin’ Irish. Still, as much as I believe the reports that the strong wind died just as Oliver kicked the winning field goal, it’s not the reason that game contributes to my belief that God cares about sports. What happened next does.

In the midst of the crazy celebration, Carson walked on the field where the students were still going wild with joy. He headed toward the spot where Oliver made the kick. He looked toward the goalposts in the distance and marveled at how the ball had traveled so far, so true. Then he noticed a grass divot a few yards up the field. And he immediately believed that this divot was the very one that Oliver made when he kicked the ball.

He picked up the divot and left the stadium convinced he had found a tremendous treasure. After his three-hour ride back to Indianapolis, he planted the divot at the edge of his flower garden, a garden with a statue of the Blessed Mother in the middle of it. He figured that she, of all people, would understand the tremendous faith—and the blessed lunacy—of a Notre Dame football fan.

If God sees everything, as people of faith believe, I like to think he would have taken a curious yet extended look at what Carson had done that day. I also like to think that God would have smiled, shaken his head in appreciation and would have even been touched by that gesture of faith and devotion toward his mother.

So while I’m not convinced that God cares who wins (Notre Dame fans know that his mother does), I do believe God cares about sports.

Think about it for a moment: God gives people the talents to play sports. They bring us together, they bring us joy, and sometimes they teach us about life, faith and hope. They also teach us about pain, loss and the courage it takes to get back up when we fail or fall.

Besides, if we care about sports, and God cares about us, it seems only natural that he would care about sports, too—if only from the standpoint of how they influence our lives and our relationships, even our relationship with him.

That connection of sports, faith and relationships will be featured this weekend when the Irish football team comes to Indianapolis to play Purdue University in Lucas Oil Stadium on Sept. 13.

The game and a pep rally are naturally part of what is called the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame’s annual “home” football game in a city beyond its campus. So, too, is the desire to leave a positive impact on the community where the game is played.

In Indianapolis, the Notre Dame Alumni Association and the Notre Dame Club of Indianapolis will lead an effort on Sept. 12 to revitalize the near west side Indianapolis neighborhood that is home to Providence Cristo Rey High School and Hawthorne Community Center. Volunteers will also work with Hearts and Hands of Indianapolis to prepare a home for a family in need.

The weekend’s schedule of events also will include a Mass at 10 a.m. on Sept. 13 at St. John the Evangelist Church. The Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, while Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins will be the homilist.

And the influence of the Blessed Mother on Notre Dame will also be featured as professor emeritus of theology Lawrence Cunningham is scheduled to give a presentation on “Mary in Art and Image on Notre Dame’s Campus” at 11:30 a.m. at the Westin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.

Some eight hours later—the game begins shortly after 7:30 p.m.—the saint in heaven on duty will open the usual “Notre Dame football prayers and promises phone line.”

(John Shaughnessy is the assistant editor of The Criterion and the author of When God Cheers.)

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