Hitting tennis balls with my friend's nine-year-old son yesterday brought me back onto the tennis court for the first time in maybe 10 years. I no longer play tennis, my first love, but as I aimed to hit a few groundstrokes, serve and volley I was reminded of how I became a tennis player: I practiced, and summer was the best time to do that.
As many nights a week as possible, I met my friend Joy to hit tennis balls at our club. We were of the same ability—though I think Joy was a stronger and better player—and we were committed to practicing and improving our game. I took lessons and went to a tennis camp (thank you, Michael Wayman!). I played in matches, though probably not enough. I say that because competition enhances one's game through testing a player's mental aptitude in a way that practice does not. One can even get into the practice of competing. Had I done things differently, I would embrace this mindset, or rather, practice, and run with it.
Now that I am a golfer, I often wonder how much I should practice. The best golfers are committed to it. I see these men and women working on their short game all the time. They participate in a wide variety of putting drills, they aren't afraid to stand in a bunker for 15 to 30 minutes and work on getting out of it....finding different lies and varying their club selection.
If it's a nice day and I have some free time, I know I should head over to the range at my club. It's beautiful...it's out of doors and there are plenty of people to distract me from what I should be doing. But, my favorite way to practice is to go out and play 9 or 18 holes. One can really practice if you don't have people in front or back of you—but, no matter how you slice it, in order to improve in golf, a golfer must practice. And what he or she must practice are the fundamentals, the parts of the game that well...might be boring. It might not be physically demanding or exhausting in the way that tennis, swimming or running is, but there is a mental fatigue. My back is often chewed up. Jane Fonda probably didn't know that when she first christened the cliche "no pain, no gain" she was talking even to those of us carrying clubs and wearing spikes. Thanks, girl.
Practice is a discipline that is in no way limited to sports. Whether it's a musical instrument, a foreign language or memorizing lines for a play, the need to practice is universal. The article "Bishop in Residence" by The Most Reverend Robert M. Lynch in the latest issue of "Notre Dame Magazine" prompted me to think about the practice of faith.
Catholic Bishops are called to proclaim, teach and write about the Church's teaching for the faithful to learn, study and live. Ideally, the Bishop will shepherd the shepherds, tending to priests who know their flock or as Pope Francis has put it: smell like sheep. Unfortunately, however, this isn't always the case. Clericalism is real and the message from the pulpit doesn't always resonate with the lived experience of those in the pews. Many feel disconnected or unattached to a place that has been a spiritual home to families for 2000 years. However, such concerns/complaints could not be more uncharacteristic of what I read from Bishop Lynch. I am so grateful to have received his message. He wrote:
Last August I arrived on campus like any other student, my car overloaded with what I thought to be the essentials for a new school year. I had finally made it back to college after 40 years as a priest and 21 as a bishop.
Father Jenkins asked me to spend a semester or more living on campus, doing whatever I wished to do.
Originally I thought I might begin to write a book. But I also wanted to immerse myself in campus ministry and learn as much as I could about the students and their relationships with God and the Church. Upon arrival I received a schedule that did not resemble “retirement.” I would hear confessions for an hour at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart twice each week, celebrate Mass in residence hall chapels five nights a week and at the basilica every Friday morning, attend and give lectures at the request of the theology department, lead a weekend retreat for the young men of Old College as they discern vocations to the priesthood, conduct an overnight staff retreat for a University department, participate in a weekend retreat for 180 teachers in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, and do anything else I wished or might be asked to do.
Clearly, Bishop Lynch was steeped in the practice of ecclesial ministry during his semester on campus. His example gave me pause to consider how I practice my faith, and how do students at Notre Dame.
When fellow alumni return to Notre Dame, they always discuss the changes to campus. New buildings and dorms abound. The amount of money is astounding. Is any stone left unturned? Is any walkway unpaved? My classmates want to know if students today still "work hard and play hard" as we once did. I always inquire about their faith life and the practice of faith on campus. Bishop Lynch responds thoughtfully and eloquently to my query. He writes,
One thing I learned is that the Catholic faith at Notre Dame is alive and well. Many times I have heard parents lament, “My children went through Catholic schools from first grade to college and now they don’t practice the faith!” What I found here is that Catholic students — about 82 percent of the student body — arrive on campus with minimal to no knowledge of the sacraments; that they did not at home and do not now attend Mass because — they would say — their family did not make it a priority in family life. At Notre Dame they often struggle with things such as dorm Masses, Catholic teaching, the fine campus ministry programs and other manifestations and practices of the faith because these things are foreign to them.
I have no doubt that students at Notre Dame are disciplined and know the importance of practicing something...anything that is important in one's life. I am sad to read that the practice of faith, however, is foreign to them.
I believe the practice of faith must be taught, modeled, encouraged and promoted. As Catholics, we ought to commit to the practice of our faith and I will put my cards on my table: this means going to Mass. I will say more about that practice in a future posting, but for now, I would like to speak to this claim with a Sports and Spirituality analogy. Every cross country runner and coach know that the three most important words for a successful season are June, July, and August. Nothing beats summer running. This discipline makes practice in the fall more productive and yields a quiet confidence that builds strength, speed and stamina come time to race.
Though many people think of summer as a time for long, lazy days and family vacation, I have never understood why that includes taking a break from the practice of faith. Bishop Lynch would, most likely, agree. He too, shows his cards in stating unapologetically
I repeat and would defend the idea that the disinterest began at home with the faith practice, or absence thereof, that preceded these students’ arrival. The Church needs to work harder to convince parents in our local churches of the need for ardent faith practice, and not to seek cover in blaming our colleges and universities. There is a lot of work to be done, and it can and should be done at home long before a freshman arrives on campus.
The practice of faith need not be something a parent undertake alone. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, Godparents, families and friends can practice the faith with young people. In the same way I enjoy practicing golf with family or friends, so too do I enjoy going to mass with the ones I love.
I strongly recommend reading the entire article. I found it to be incredibly insightful, unassuming, realistic as well as hope-filled. I felt as though I received spiritual nourishment from his reflection that fed a part of me I did not know was hungry. I am grateful that Father Jenkins had the wisdom to invite Bishop Lynch to live among the Fighting Irish. The hospitality he encountered is how and it is why we can say "We are ND." And, I sincerely appreciate the call and challenge he put forth to all of us about how and why we need to practice our faith in June, July and August—as a family, with a family and to strengthen the Notre Dame family. Blessed be.