Leadership Skills on the Basketball Court Carry Over Into the Church

Peruvian Player-Turned-Cardinal Talks Hoops, Opus Dei and Pope Francis

Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne was an outstanding basketball player in the 1960s, even playing for the national team of his native Peru. In fact, he had been so dedicated to basketball into his early 20s that he hadn’t even considered becoming a priest. However, when an Opus Dei priest spoke to him about bringing God into his daily work, even if that meant on the basketball court, Juan Luis’ mind and heart changed. He was so impressed with the practical spirituality of Josemaría Escrivá that he was ordained an Opus Dei priest himself in 1977.

In February 2001, the fourth oldest in a family of 11 children became the first cardinal from Opus Dei — and the first cardinal to have played on a national basketball team. Cardinal Cipriani, the ordinary of Lima, Peru, recently offered unique insights to Register correspondent Trent Beattie about virtue in sports, challenges to the Church today and, of course, the Church’s first South-American pope.


Did you come from a devout Catholic family?

Yes, I am the fourth of 11 children in a good Catholic family. My father, Enrique Cipriani, was a doctor who had actively practiced his religion from boyhood. For example, in the 1930s, he went to the World Congress of Catholic Action to receive from [Pope Pius XI] some directions of how Catholics must practice their faith and be involved in secular affairs. From my dad, I have a sly smile and a bit of an ironic sense of humor.

And from my mother, Isabel Thorne Larrabure, I would say I have firmness of character and a dedication to prayer. I still remember from a very young age my mom going at night into the bedrooms of each of my brothers and sisters and teaching this prayer: "Little Jesus, little Jesus, my love, make your crib in my little heart."

I also remember, outside of my direct family activities, going to an elementary school run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The nuns were from the United States, and I remember one in particular who was very kind and welcoming. Teachers can have a great influence on young children.


How did you start playing basketball?

I must say that soccer was what I used to play the most, but I had to stop when people said I could not play with glasses in the professional leagues. I have worn glasses since age 11, and, one day, when I was playing [soccer] for the League of San Isidro, the referee came over and said: "You can’t play with glasses."

I was about 15 when I changed from soccer to basketball through the help of Father Robert Heil, the basketball coach at Santa Maria High School. This began my passion for basketball. I would spend hours shooting hoops and penetrating defenses, with groups of six or eight players who did everything at a fast-paced tempo. We loved basketball, and we still love basketball.


How long did you play on the Peruvian national team?

In April of 1961, an American coach named Jim McGregor came to Peru to coach the Peruvian national basketball team. Mr. McGregor saw that the national team had many older players, so he planned to rejuvenate the team by bringing in younger players. At that time, a friend took me to play for the basketball team Social Lince, and there was a championship for the American coach to see which players were in the local league.

Mr. McGregor first selected 55 players, and I was one of them. I was only 17, but I was able to become part of the 12-man roster of the national team. And I can say that, in this situation, a strong temperament was forged in me, there was a reinforcement of a sense of leadership over other ways of thinking or being, and I became the point guard of the Peruvian basketball team.


Did you learn any virtues from playing basketball?

I got to know what it means to have a "sports character," and that served me my whole life. One’s character or determination is revealed in someone who is knocked down and says "I can’t" or in someone who is knocked down and says "I will put in more effort." That is very important for someone who wants to be loyal to the Church today. Being Catholic will not make us popular with the world, but we have to accept this and happily carry our cross with Jesus. Our fear should never make us lose sight of the goodness of God’s plan.

I also believe basketball has let me develop the gift of relating easily with all kinds of people. That gift may have started with my 11 brothers and sisters, but basketball helped me to continue it. I find it easy to be with people of any age, social condition or circumstance. Basketball and other sports help you not to have barriers to brotherhood. Teamwork is also an important virtue, because one person, even if he is a leader, does not win by himself. A win requires the best work of each member of the team. This is helpful to remember in the priesthood, because there are so many people who contribute to the working of the Church.


How did you discern your priestly vocation?

One day when I was in Barranquilla, Colombia, playing for Peru in the Bolivarian Championship, I received a message from Father Manuel Botas, a priest in charge of Opus Dei in Colombia. He wanted to talk to me. He came to Barranquilla on a Saturday, when there was no competition, so we had lunch. In that conversation, he asked me how my conversations with God were going and what I would do with my life. That conversation [with Father Botas] made me think about the fact that a priest of Opus Dei in charge of Colombia had come to speak with me, which was a gesture of great magnitude to me.

Back in college, I occasionally talked with Father Luis Tejerizo, a Spanish man, who called me one Sunday to [invite me to] talk to an engineer [named] Ramón Mujica, who directly asked me: "Haven’t you thought of being part of Opus Dei someday?" And in a very simple conversation, he told me that "the purpose of Opus Dei is to seek God in sports, in engineering or in the streets." I think that was what attracted me to Opus Dei, whose purpose is to coordinate your own life projects to the service of God in the Church, but not to stop a life project, such as sports or a career, to leave for a monastery or convent.

Obviously, being in Opus Dei is now a commitment, with a spiritual formation that includes daily Mass and Communion and daily recitation of the Rosary. I also joined to my practice some habits of piety, such as the daily reading of a good spiritual book. One thing very clear about the commitment of my priesthood is that I will not follow the way of marriage, but of celibacy.


St. Rose of Lima was the first person born in North or South America to be canonized. Is her influence still felt in Peru today?

Santa Rosa’s life makes us think about how that simple woman, born in Lima, was close to God throughout her entire life. And we see in her that the leadership of the saints is the leadership that leads you to God’s love. And today we see in Lima and throughout Peru a lot of people who have great devotion to Santa Rosa because they want to be at peace with family or to overcome an illness. Santa Rosa of Lima is an example of holiness for Peruvians, an example of a Peruvian woman completely surrendered to God in the service of others. And her faithfulness to God was recognized as the first flower of sanctity of the American continent.


What are some of the biggest challenges for the Church in Peru today?

I think the three missions for the Church of teaching, sanctifying and governing will always be the greatest challenges. This is true, no matter where you are in the world. The specific details are different, but the challenges are the same. The duty to teach is not only what we say about holy Scripture, but about the Church’s view of the human being, human dignity and freedom. And according to the Church, the human being is formed in the family, so the family must be involved in the educational process. In that sense, we have the great challenge, which Pope Benedict XVI called the "crisis of relativism," where one view is supposed to be as good as another. This is not true, however. Pope Benedict has made clear that not every belief has equal weight, and, now, Pope Francis constantly encourages us to reaffirm moral values.

So, in Peru, authorities should promote marriages consisting of a man and a woman, and they should also ensure that life will be respected from natural conception to natural death. It is also necessary to have an economic system that promotes the common good, which means human development: maximum number of people with access to health care, education and housing.


What do you think about having a South-American pope?

Pope Francis’ election has already generated great enthusiasm in South America and around the world. He has brought austere reforms to a world sick with materialism. Materialism prevents people from being connected to God, because their possessions get in the way. Pope Francis’ humble example and energetic words are helping many people remove those things that prevent a good relationship with God. Our Holy Father is a very spontaneous man, with a strong personality and clear personal decisions. He is an authentic Argentinian. I would say a Buenos Aires one, like those from the Port of Buenos Aires, who are spontaneous and simple. Because of his authenticity, people are already tuned into his reforms.

The wealth of South America is its popular religiosity. I think the Pope can reinforce this enthusiasm of faith with serious teaching about respecting human life, family and religious freedom. For us in South America, this is normal. We are not afraid of expressing our faith. Our natural enthusiasm, combined with proper Church teaching, can become, as John Paul II said, "the new springtime for the Church."

Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

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