Legionary Father Kevin Lixey sees sports as a way to evangelize.

As the world’s attention focuses on the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the 37-year-old priest from Flint, Mich., has a lot to say about the relationship between sports and spirituality. He heads the Vatican Office on Church and Sports, which is under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Register correspondent Lino Rulli spoke with Father Lixey.

You’ve said that the Winter Olympics 2006 has its own patron saint.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is someone who lived in the 20th century. He was a bicyclist, skier, mountain climber — and was a model athlete.

And now it’s coming full circle: The Olympics are being held in Turin. And Frassati’s body lies in the Cathedral of Turin.

In fact, there’s a woman coming from Denver, Colo. [skier Rebecca Dussault, profiled Feb. 5 in the Register], who has written on the bottom of her skis: “Frassati.”

What role will the Church have in Turin?

We won’t have an official presence, other than having chaplains who attend the Olympics, and who will be there for the athletes. But until now, the Church had never had a point of reference. And now we’re here to let people know the Church is interested in them.

How did a priest from Flint, Mich., wind up as head of the Vatican Office on Church and Sports?

I’d like to think it was my great athletic achievements, but I don’t think that was actually the case.

Sports were always a part of my life; from fourth grade on, I played basketball, soccer and football. And [the Vatican] saw the work we in the Legion of Christ do with youth.

And since our congregation is a younger congregation, they wanted someone with a background of working with youth.

So are you primarily focused on youth?

It can be difficult to get kids excited about faith, but sports can help do that. We all know kids look to athletes as role models. And while it’s easy to see the negative side of sports — be it doping, fan violence, or millionaire athletes who aren’t always the best role models — there’s also the positive side of sport that isn’t being promoted on any grand scale. And we want to change that.

For instance, Jeff Suppan, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, goes and gives talks at high schools. And he’s able to make use of the great opportunity he has as an athlete because he knows kids will listen to what he has to say. It’s just a fact. And if all athletes had that attitude, what a message we could send to young people!

 

What has been the reaction to your new office?

Everyone is very enthusiastic. Whether it’s here in Rome, or the e-mails I get from all over the world.

We had our first conference on sports this past November, with participants from different countries — scholars, professional athletes, coaches, all looking to the future with great hope. We talked about the fact that it’s not enough to just get kids involved in sports — we also need to give them formation. So we see the role of the coach as very important.

A coach might spend 200 hours with young people, whereas a catechist has 18-20 hours, max. So the coach has a unique opportunity through sports to reach young people. And our office wants to assist them in doing that.

Some people may see the only relationship between faith and sports as praying for a victory. What would you say to that?

Well, the relationship doesn’t exist in a superstitious way.

But really, sport can teach lessons of life — how to lose as well as how to win. And sport also teaches lessons of the importance of the struggle, which applies to the spiritual life, too. Saint Paul says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race.” And in his own spiritual battle, we see a paradigm for sport.

Sport opens up the door to the human person, and people involved with athletics strive for perfection and build willpower. And we want to tap into that. So sport isn’t just about the body; it’s training that leads to virtue. And that lays the groundwork for spiritual virtues, as well.

Pope John Paul II said sports could be a “school of virtue.” What was the late Holy Father’s reaction to hearing about this new office?

He loved to kayak and hike, and saw the importance that sports played in his life as a way to reach young people.

So when we presented our new office to the Holy Father, I remember his reaction when he heard the word “sport.” He perked up, stomped his fist down on his chair rest and said “Sport?!” with real enthusiasm. He was very excited about this.

And while many people think of John Paul II as the only Pontiff who was interested in the world of sport — it actually goes back quite a ways. In fact, Pius XII said, “Sports, properly directed, develops character … and steels the will to endurance.”

So from Pius XII to Benedict XVI — who blessed the Olympic torch [in December] — it shows the Church befriending, if you will, the sports world.

 

How do you see this office as part of the New Evangelization?

John Paul II said we are on the frontier of the New Evangelization. So as sports continue to grow as a part of our culture, we’re very excited about the impact we can make.

But sport is more than just a hook. The sports world is fertile ground for the Church to preach the Gospel.

Lino Rulli is based in Minneapolis, Minn.