Monday, November 8, 2010

Saints and Athletes: Similarity in Difference

Saints and sinners. Professional athletes these days seem to fall into one category or the other. But Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Saints are sinners who kept on going.” And no one knows the virtue of perseverance more than saints and athletes. The lives of the saints are one of the great treasures of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, it is one tradition that is largely unfamiliar to my students. They know Peyton Manning, Buster Posey, and Serena Williams and yet I think they would benefit from meeting Thomas Merton and Therese of Lisieux. Can we learn the value of saints through the example of athletes? I think so.

Saints, like professional athletes, are known for their achievements and endeavors. Both have fans and followers; they make great sacrifices and more. Technically a “saint” is someone who has been canonized; officially recognized by the church as having lived a holy life, enjoys life in heaven with God and is worthy of public veneration by the faithful.

To me, canonization is similar to enshrinement in a sports hall of fame. Many a baseball fan that has made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown is grateful the sport has gone to great lengths to ensure a system for public veneration of the “legends.” We may not retire their number, but the relics, feast days and festivals that take place where they were born or ministered indicate a similar desire to honor their lives and livelihood. And once inducted, these men and women are referred to as a “Saint” with a capital “S.” Truly, they are spiritual heroes.

Yet, many of the “greats” in sports go unrecognized in history’s hallowed hallways. And, the same is true in the spiritual life. There are everyday saints among us; these are saints we refer to with a lower-case “s.” In his recent visit to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict said, “he hoped that among his listeners there would be future saints. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy.” Indeed, we are all called to be holy, to be saints.

The best-selling book, “My Life With the Saints” by James Martin, SJ is a spiritual memoir of capital “S” and a lower case “s” saints. It chronicles the lives of 16 holy men and women who lived, struggled and died for their faith. “My Life With the Saints” begins with the biography of Joan of Arc--the first saint that Martin really “met.” After traveling to her hometown where she and was martyred, he decided to learn more about her life. As a result, she became for him, the first saint that was more than an image in a stained glass window or a name over a church door.

As I read Martin’s book, I asked myself “who was the first saint I really met?” Who is a holy man or woman whose story made an impact on me? I was drawn to St. Clare because of her beautiful name, blond hair, and love for St. Francis. I took Clare as my confirmation name but I didn’t know much more.

Dissatisfied, I thought about the first athlete I “met,” and that was easy to answer—Will Clark. I literally and figuratively met the Giants first baseman at Spring Training in Scottsdale, Arizona as he signed autographs. I read everything about “The Thrill.” –where he was born, what his hobbies were, where he played college baseball, what his achievements as a rookie were etc. William Nuschler Clark, Jr. will not be enshrined in the baseball hall of fame, but he is still beloved by Giants fans. At any game, you will see a robust number of “Clark 22” jerseys in the stands. Fans were delighted when he joined the Giants front office as a special assistant in 2009. “The Thrill” was no longer gone.

Is it wise for young people to “meet” the saints? Not only are the Saints one of the great traditions of the Catholic Church, but they are holy examples of those who have reached their full human potential. It is easy to measure that great athletes reach their potential, it is much more difficult to see that in everyday life-- the way we love one another, care for creation or serve those in need. But through meeting the Saints and saints around and before us, we may see otherwise.

Photo Credits

Therese of Lisieux
Peyton Manning
The Babe at Cooperstown
Will Clark

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