A Different Team and a Lasting Championship

Thanks to ESPN, a former basketball star brings the love of Jesus Christ to the world — without leaving her cloister

(photo: Register Files)

As a former athlete and lifelong sports fan, I visit ESPN.com a couple of times a day. There I get more than box scores, videos and articles on recent happenings in major sports. I also receive inspiration from the heroism of various teams and athletes, who overcome seemingly insurmountable life situations to make the pros, or mount incredible comebacks under pressure to win games or championships, or handle crushing defeats with grace and maturity.

Sports have always been one of the great practice fields for human growth — for cultivating preparation, perseverance, leadership, teamwork, poise — and even in an age in which many star athletes fail to live in an exemplary way off the field, the character of those who strive to be role models can have a profoundly positive influence on others in various walks of life.

That’s one reason why St. Paul regularly used sports — like running and boxing — in his preaching of the Gospel, because what’s required to fight the good fight and finish the race in athletics is akin to the discipline needed to be faithful disciples. In my priestly work with men, young people and increasingly with women, sports have not only been a good conversation starter but a school of spiritual lessons.

Even though I am routinely inspired by articles and features on ESPN.com, I have never encountered anything as moving as the lead article and video the morning of Aug. 3. It was about cloistered nun, Sr. Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels, from the Poor Clare monastery in Alexandria, Virginia, who had just celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession.

The article, entitled, “Whatever Happened to Villanova Basketball Star Shelly Pennefather? ‘So I Made This Deal With God,’” was part of a promo for a documentary entitled “A Long Embrace” about the former Mary Michelle “Shelly” Pennefather, debuting that evening.

Shelly was the highest scorer in Villanova basketball history who in the early 1990s was on the verge of becoming the highest-paid female basketball player in the world, but opted instead to embrace poverty, chastity and obedience far from the lights of the arena and cameras.

Her story, and the way it impacted the life of her coach, teammates, former boyfriend and the author of the article, ESPN senior writer Elizabeth Merrill, was written with a reverence and awe that the best Catholic publications couldn’t surpass. My social media accounts were blitzkrieged for a few days with links and enthusiastic recommendations to watch it.

The coverage was a mix of fascination and incomprehension at how someone like Shelly could make the choice not just to leave riches, fame and athletic glory behind to become an religious sister, where she might be able to teach and coach others to greatness in this world and beyond, but to become an “incarcerated” cloistered nun perpetually behind the grille, as Sr. Rose Marie jokingly describes her life. The truly radical nature of her vocation, it became clear as the article progressed, although respected, remained shocking even 28 years after she passed through the monastery portal.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus once famously quipped that we cannot become saints by halves, that is, by giving less than one hundred percent. We’re living, however, in an age of compromises with the faith, in which we’ll give ourselves with total dedication to our families, careers, sports and volunteer work, but moderate our commitment to the Lord lest we be “fanatical.” Even though Jesus called us to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, most of us are satisfied with giving him only a percentage. We can easily relate to the decision made by the Rich Young Man: After Jesus told him that to have it all he needed to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and then come follow him, he walked away because he didn’t have the strength to choose Jesus over all his stuff.

In the midst of a materialist, hedonist and autonomous age, the radical nature of the religious life, uniting oneself to the poor, chaste and obedient Jesus as one’s true wealth, love and freedom, is an extraordinary sign of contradiction. Even more so is the cloistered life like that adopted by Sr. Rose Marie, voluntarily cutting herself off both from the things to which so many of us are addicted — like televisions, computers, cell phones, and the culture of the instantaneous — as well as from some of the most beautiful and meaningful things in life, like contact with family and friends any time we want.

The choice she has made, however, is a modern illustration of Jesus’ parables of the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). There are certain things worth joyfully selling all one has to obtain. Cloistered nuns make a bold proclamation that God is greater than all other great gifts and realities in life. It’s a prophetic declaration that God’s love is enough to satisfy the desires he has placed in the human heart. It’s a witness that the most important thing we need to do in life is to love God back with all we’ve got.

In a sixth-grade class, when Shelly was asked what she was hoping to be when she grew up, she replied, “I’m going to be a saint!” At first her classmates laughed, thinking that their humorous companion was just trying to be witty. She was serious. To desire the end is to choose the means. St. Thomas Aquinas said that all one needs to do to become a saint is to will it — but to will it with all one’s heart. And Sr. Rose Marie has willed it with the same type of focus, determination and perseverance with which Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will to win Super Bowls.

Her decision was nourished by her understanding of the Eucharist. As a young woman, she was struck by Jesus’ words, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:56), and grasped that she wanted to live her life with Christ in the Eucharist as the center and root of her life. Attending daily Mass at Villanova and then in Japan where she played pro ball, her hunger only grew. Her life has become a commentary on Jesus’ words, “Just as the Father who has life sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:57). It has also become an elucidation of the words of consecration, as she has given her body, blood, and life together with Jesus for others.

We get a glimpse of how much fruit her religious life has borne in various people in the video. Via letters and their occasional visits to the monastery, she has counseled her former coach, Villanova teammates and family members through troubled home situations, child-raising sagas, physical sufferings, the death of loved ones, and major life choices. Many of her teammates remarked that she and her fellow Poor Clares, rather than being oblivious to what is happening in the world, are actually very well informed on major worldly events, because their vocation is to pray for those in the world, like Moses on the mountain as the battle was waging in the plain (Exodus 17:11). They continue to pray for persons and outcomes long after the petitioners have forgotten having made the request.

Much was made in the article and documentary about her impressive feats on the court: 96-0 in high school; a record 2,408 points for Villanova, in the era before three-pointers; three-time All-America and Big East Player of the Year; and 1987 Wade Trophy as Female College Player of the Year.

When the General Judgment takes place, however, those achievements will seem insignificant compared to what she is now accomplishing with a different team and a different coach in monastic enclosure toward an imperishable crown — an eternal victory won by Christ that she and her habited teammates are praying that we will share.