Saturday, March 24, 2018

Three Reasons Why We Love the NCAA's Unicorn: Sister Jean

I can't tell you how many people have asked me when I will blog about Sister Jean, the 98-year-old chaplain of the Loyola men's basketball team. I'm not sure what I can say that hasn't already been said. Type in her name and everyone from People Magazine to the New York Times has a piece on this lucid, peppery woman who prays with an for the Ramblers at home in Chicago and now on the road to San Antonio. I spoke about her at the NCEA Convention last year, thanks to a thoughtful piece in America magazine. It was the only publicity of its kind.  This year, however, people can't stop talking about her? Why?
Why has a woman originally named Dolores Schmidt, become the media darling of March Madness? Why, when given a chance to teach about any topic for their Sports in the News presentation, did two of my seniors— both boys—want their classmates to learn more about this woman born in San Francisco in 1919? That's the question I would like to explore in this blog posting. Here are but a few thoughts.

We love great stories.

Nothing surprising about this claim nor the fact that great stories are born every March on the hardwood, with buzzer beaters, swishes, slams, and well, maybe—prayers, too. Loyola of Chicago, the fourth 11-seed to take make the Elite 8 has a prayer leader in their official team chaplain, Sister Jean. As written in "Meet the 97-year old nun who is Chaplain of Loyola's Basketball Team," 
The 5-foot nun can be seen at every home game of the men's team. She's most often decked out in Loyola gear and wearing her trademark maroon Nike tennis shoes with gold laces that have "Sister" stitched onto the heel of her left shoe and "Jean" stitched on the heel of her right shoe. 
She leads the team in a pregame prayer. A writer for ESPN who listened in before one game characterized it as a mix of prayer, scouting report and motivational speech. She begins each prayer with the phrase "Good and gracious God."
Sister Jean created two brackets for this year's tourney. She picked the Ramblers to head to the Sweet 16 in her "realistic" one and has them winning it all in her Cinderella bracket. A delightful YouTube clip has the team apologizing for busting that first bracket. No need for reconciliation here. Another great story...
We miss nuns
In America Magazine's 2018 feature on Sister Jean entitled "What You Don't Know About Loyola's Sister Jean," Zac Davis writes
In 1966, there were 181,421 women religious in the United States. Today, there are 47,170 (and only 9 percent are younger than 60). While many Americans grew up under the influence of religious sisters, with so few remaining, they have faded from being regular parts of our lives to residing in our nostalgic memories. Sister Jean reminds us of the work that women religious have always done without any fanfare or morning talk show spots.
On one hand, I am skeptical of his assertion that we miss nuns. For too long, I have heard negative talk about religious women—how many of them never smiled or laughed. I'm familiar with countless complaints of their strict discipline and unbending ways. They have been mocked and ridiculed and I've always thought that was...well...unfair. To say that we miss them, as Davis suggested raised an eyebrow.

However, in their defense, I'm pretty sure if I taught 50 children at one time in the same classroom all day, I wouldn't laugh or smile much either. I hate to say this, but I have also believed that religious women were the slave labor of the Church. Their work was incredibly demanding and exhausting; their rewards were too few. Yes, they took vows of obedience and poverty, but I believe that should never be exploited. It was—and that may have had an impact on our perception of these women, not to mention a characteristic of their reality. 

Yes, some were overly rigid. Others did lack the joy we hope the Chrisitan life should reveal. But countless others gave and never counted the cost. I want to say again, again and again—THANK YOU to these women AND if we can now recognize them as someone we miss, all the better.
What We Already Know
I think the real reason we are so drawn to the story of Sister Jean is that she reveals to us what we already know but so often find hard to believe: the most important people in life, the happiest people in the world are those that by the world's standards do very little.

I asked the students in my class Sports and Spirituality if they play on a team with a chaplain. About half of them raised their hands. I then asked them what the chaplain does. They said "not much...he (or she) is just there." Or "well, she travels with us...sits on the bench during our games...prays with us." Still others said, "we have team mass with our chaplain... he talks to us...and to our coach." I said, "that's exactly what a chaplain should do." However, the more I thought about what a chaplain does, I realized: isn't that what we should all be doing for our community? for one another?

Sister Jean is not a mascot. Yes, she has been featured on a bobblehead, but every article about her speaks of something more—her ministry. Sister Jean has a special role on the team: she listens, she guides them spiritually, she supports the players and the coaches and through all of her work, she demonstrates that she loves them, she loves life, and God. The world says the most important people in the world are 
the superstars, the greatest of athletes, or those with power. No, Sister Jean reminds us of something different..and guess what she has become a national superstar along the way. Excuse me, to use her words "an international" superstar along the way.

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