Catholic Athletes for Christ Keeps Players Fit in the Spirit
Former government lawyer Ray McKenna perceived a ‘distinct need’ for Catholic sports ministry. Now he brings the sacraments to players.
BY BRIAN CAULFIELD
| Posted 10/19/11 at 1:47 AM
While coaches provide for players’ physical training, Ray McKenna is one who wants to ensure baseball players get spiritual care as well.
A federal government lawyer for 20 years, and later working for President George W. Bush’s administration, McKenna has moved outside the D.C. Beltway in recent years. While maintaining a private law practice, in 2006, he founded Catholic Athletes for Christ, a nonprofit organization that serves Catholics in professional sports by providing retreats, team chaplains and priests for clubhouse Masses. While evangelical groups are far ahead of Catholics in forming prayer groups and Bible studies and promoting famous athletes (think Tim Tebow), McKenna soon hopes to equal their work for Catholics.
Last year, McKenna, 53, was married to Shawn, a widow with six children. They had a miscarriage earlier this year of a child they count as their seventh. They live in Alexandria, Va.
Register correspondent Brian Caulfield spoke with McKenna about his past, his faith and his present work.
Have you always been a sports fan?
Yes, since my earliest days growing up in the Bronx. I had a sports-oriented family and played baseball, basketball and football.
Tell us about your positions in Washington.
It was very intense and very interesting work. I started as a lawyer, not a political appointment, in the Justice Department and then the Treasury. Then I worked in the House of Representatives when Newt Gingrich was speaker. That led to an appointment in the first term of the Bush administration, starting in 2001. I was general counsel for the General Services Administration, which oversees the government’s procurement process and the buying and selling of real estate. That was a very busy and very rewarding job because of all the government contracts and the fact that the government is the largest holder of real estate in the country. We also were involved in the auditing of such companies as Enron and some financial institutions at the time.
How do you go from being a Beltway lawyer to promoting Catholicism among athletes?
I was involved in volunteer sports ministry for over 20 years and perceived a distinct need for Catholic sports ministry. Quite frankly, whereas the Protestants and evangelicals had active ministries, there was very little for Catholics. There was an overt or subtle anti-Catholicism in so-called “nondenominational” sports ministries. I was inspired also by Pope John Paul II when he founded the Vatican Office of Church and Sport in 2004.
How do you see sports and faith working together?
I refer to what I call the “theology of sports,” which simply is a way to say that sports are helpful to learn about God and serve him. I often say that faith informs sport, and, also in many ways, sport informs faith. For example, St. Paul speaks of the spiritual life in terms of a race, a prize fight and a battle to win an “imperishable crown.”
Similarly, the lessons of sports can also help us in the spiritual life. For example, all athletes — even the most gifted — need to prepare for games by a disciplined routine and sometimes monotonous daily practice. In the spiritual realm, we need to be rooted in daily prayer, Mass, confession, sacramentals. Without “practicing the faith,” we will be ill-prepared to succeed in the spiritual battle. Other examples would be teamwork (selflessness), goal setting, fraternity and charity, which translate easily from the sporting to the spiritual realm.
Who do you see as role models for Catholic athletes?
You have to consider Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers’ legendary coach, as No.1. He was totally dedicated to his sport and his players, and he was a daily communicant, coming out of a strong Catholic family and tradition. Today, we still have outstanding athletes who are associated with Catholic Athletes for Christ, like Mike Sweeney, the former Royals and Phillies star; ex-Met great Mike Piazza, and Trever Miller, the great short relief pitcher …. He and his wife have received with great love a disabled child named Grace, who is 7 years old now.
Then there’s Rick Eckstein, batting coach for the Washington Nationals, whose brother David played many years in the majors. Last December, Rick donated a kidney to another brother who was suffering kidney failure. In fact, Catholic Athletes for Christ honored Rick with the first “Courage Award” on Oct. 4.
Describe the work and goals of Catholic Athletes for Christ.
We serve Catholic athletes in the practice of their faith and promote evangelization in and through sports to the whole world. We do this by assisting in ensuring availability of the sacraments at sporting venues, such as arranging for a priest for Sunday Mass. We also connect more than 75 Catholic athlete speakers (whom we call “Cathletes”) with parishes, youth conferences, schools and other Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus. We also provide spiritual direction and formation through athlete retreats and days of recollection. Most recently, our episcopal advisory board is championing the establishment of Catholic Athletes for Christ chapters at Catholic high schools. We have pilot programs in Philadelphia, Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas.
How many athletes and teams do you work with?
A few hundred athletes and at least 40 professional teams in baseball, football, soccer, basketball and hockey. We also work with the Vatican Office of Church and Sport and have attended the international conferences sponsored by that office. Currently, we are working with Catholic Bishops’ Conference in England in preparing for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, where they plan to have a strong presence in serving the spiritual and sacramental needs of the Catholic athletes at the Games.
Register correspondent Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
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