Americans Participate in Vatican’s ‘Sport Is for Man’ Seminar

The three-day event includes interfaith soccer match for peace.

Ray McKenna and Linda Del Rio (r) meet Pope Francis.
Ray McKenna and Linda Del Rio (r) meet Pope Francis. (photo: Courtesy Catholic Athletes for Christ)

The Pontifical Council for Culture’s international seminar entitled “Sport Is for Man” got under way Monday and will run through Wednesday in Vatican City.

Participants will discuss what the Church can bring to the realm of sports and what the realm of sports can, in turn, bring to the world. The event will culminate with a Mass and audience with the Holy Father on Wednesday.

Monday’s soccer match, called the first “Interreligious Match for Peace,” was played at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Spectators got to see former professional players taking the field in a friendly match meant to symbolize the building of a peaceful world based on dialogue and respect for others.

One man whose faith has led him to participate in the “Sport Is for Man” conference is American Ben Domingue, a former Louisiana State University football player and current Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) missionary. Domingue specializes in outreach to university athletes through Varsity Catholic, an arm of Focus.

Domingue has never been to the Vatican, so he was excited to go: “I’m from Lafayette, La., and went to college in Baton Rouge, so most of my life has been spent in one state. Even the University of Texas at Austin, where I’m stationed now for Focus, is fairly close to Louisiana, so it should be interesting to see Rome, but most especially the Vatican.”

Among the things Domingue will do at the Vatican is to share real-life stories of his evangelization efforts within the realm of American college sports. He says the Pontifical Council for Culture is always interested in what efforts are being made “on the ground” to further the Gospel and the good of man.

“The hierarchy of the Church doesn’t need us to define doctrines, but they do want to know what we’ve been doing with those doctrines, and specifically what has worked well as we’ve tried to reach people in the bustling world,” Domingue said. “It’s fantastic to see that the leaders of the Church know how important sports are — that they’re a mission field, really. Hopefully, I can offer some insights at the seminar on how we can bring the reign of Christ to sports.”


Other American Participants

Another American participant is Linda Del Rio, an executive consultant for Focus and a board member of Catholic Athletes for Christ. Del Rio is the wife of Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio; she is a mother of four grown children. She has also been an accredited photographer of several Vatican events, including the recent canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

Del Rio participated in the Vatican seminar on sports last fall and was invited to return for this year’s event just a few weeks ago. “Last year was a great success,” she said. “We had lively discussions with other participants about what Varsity Catholic and Catholic Athletes for Christ were doing to support athletes, coaches and other staff members of athletic teams. Important topics covered included pastoral care, fellowship, catechetical resources and funding.”

There should be a wealth of information at this year’s event as well, Del Rio believes, in part because of the dedication of the approximately 500 Focus missionaries in the United States. She admires the group’s work so much that she requested two missionaries be allowed to attend.

“I am excited to see that Ben — and also Allison McCormick, the second FOCUS missionary going to the seminar this year — will give their testimonies and recount faith-sharing stories from American college campuses,” Del Rio stated. “This should be an enriching experience for everyone involved.”


Sports for the Mass-es

Someone familiar with enriching experiences in the realm of sports is Ray McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC). McKenna led last year’s American delegation to the Vatican’s sports seminar and is going this year not only on behalf of CAC, but also for the Knights of Columbus, with whom CAC has been collaborating on a number of events in the United States. Jim Delaney, a CAC executive board member, will also be in attendance.

“Pope Francis was the one who started this year’s event when he came up with the idea to have an interreligious soccer game,” McKenna said. ”The discussions and other events were built around the soccer event in a planning sense, but in a more spiritual sense, everything is built around the Mass. The soccer game is symbolic of certain values, but the Mass is actually the source of any values worth pursuing.”

The centrality of the Mass has been foundational for McKenna and his efforts to bring the Church into sports, particularly professional ones. He knows that discussions, while important, will not have the desired results if they are not grounded in the sacrifice of the Christ on the cross, which is the same sacrifice of the Mass.

McKenna said, “I’m going to be presenting a paper with the theme ‘Reclaiming Sports for Christ and the Church.’ This is a vital topic, and we have to remember that the wellspring of any grace needed to accomplish this goal will ultimately be found in the Mass.”

Going to Mass anywhere in the world is a grace-filled experience, McKenna believes, but he sees Mass at the Vatican as having special significance: “Wherever we are in the world, the Catholic Mass is at its core the same, because Jesus himself doesn’t change. However, going to Mass at the Vatican is really amazing. There is so much history and heroic witness to the faith that you’re immersed in. I’ve gotten so much out of my visits there, and I’m delighted to be going again this year.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.