Athletic Clergy Use Sports for the Good of Souls

Hockey, marathons and baseball are among favored athletic activities.

The DC Padres team is made up of priests and seminarians. Father Larry Young (team manager), Bishop Martin Holley and Ken Sheiber (announcer).
The DC Padres team is made up of priests and seminarians. Father Larry Young (team manager), Bishop Martin Holley and Ken Sheiber (announcer). (photo: Courtesy of the DC Padres)

Some people think of the priesthood as the death of any enjoyment of life. No wife, no children, no sports, no fun. It’s all dreadfully serious business for priests, the thinking goes. Such thinking itself, according to notable clerics, must go.

“Certainly the priesthood is serious business. You can’t get any more serious than eternal salvation,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. “However, everyone needs to step away from their responsibilities from time to time in order to recreate, and the clergy are no different.”

Aside from providing much-needed recreation, Bishop Paprocki, who has completed 19 marathons himself, has found athletics to be very helpful in drawing others to Christ. He uses time spent running to pray (often on a 10-bead finger rosary) and to mentally assemble homilies and articles that are often introduced by sports stories.

“I’ve used sports many times to begin a discussion, especially with the young,” the national chaplain for LIFE Runners explained. “St. Ignatius of Loyola said that you should meet someone where he’s at in order to bring him where you are. You make the effort to see things as your audience does and then connect that perspective with what you’re delivering. You build on what’s already there, and for many young people, what’s already there is sports.”

Sports have been there for Bishop Paprocki since his youth in Chicago. As one of seven boys, he played everything, from hockey (a family favorite) to soccer and baseball. Yet, despite having a ready-made team on hand and a great enjoyment of sports, he didn’t consider himself to be a gifted athlete as a young man. Instead of letting this get in his way, however, it was motivation to improve.

“Even though I had six brothers and a real appreciation for sports, I certainly wasn’t the best at any sport I played in,” Bishop Paprocki admitted. “I think that made me work for things and become a better person overall. Instead of taking sports for granted, I realized how much effort can be needed to learn them, and I understood the setbacks people encounter. This has helped me pastorally, because I can use my own challenges to connect with and help others.”

Bishop Paprocki has found fear, frustration and failure to be among the most common difficulties people encounter. He has taught that fortitude, faith, family, friendship and fun can be the solutions: “The challenges we face in sports are so similar to the ones we face in other areas of life. Sports give us, especially when young, the opportunity to learn how to overcome problems on a smaller scale. Then we can take what we’ve learned and transfer it to the bigger world beyond sports.”

“I’ve written about this topic in a new book called Holy Goals for Body and Soul: 8 Steps to Connect Sports With God and Faith. I wanted to give readers some practical ways to live faith-filled lives through the lens of sports. There is so much to be learned from sports, not only for the sake of playing them better, but for living better, God-centered lives.”


Plowing Ahead

Franciscan Father Gregory Plow, who has competed in 11 marathons, including one with Bishop Paprocki, recently took his running skills to a whole new level. Not content with traditional 26.2-mile races, Father Plow, who is the coordinator of household life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, decided earlier this year to enter his first ultramarathon.

The Wild Idaho Ultramarathon, which took place on Aug. 3, extended 53.4 miles, up and down the mountainous terrain of the Boise National Forest, under midday 90-degree heat. Not surprisingly, there were a mere 22 participants and only 17 finishers.

“It was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done physically,” Father Plow related. “We started at 6:00 in the morning, and, because of the continuous elevation differential and pit stops, I didn’t finish until just after midnight: 12:07, to be exact. I was the last one to finish, but I did finish.”

Finishing strong was a central theme for Father Plow, who suffered in the heat during the day, and, because of the temperature decreasing to the 40s at night, later approached hypothermic conditions. His hands became chalk white, indicating blood had gone from his upper extremities to his major organs in order to keep them functioning.

This slow shutdown was first noticed at the 38-mile checkpoint, where Father Plow met up with an aid-station volunteer who had completed an ultramarathon himself. The volunteer, an experienced ultramarathoner named John, offered his jacket — and his companionship — to Father Plow, accompanying him to the end of the race.

“I was really struck by John’s generosity and his personal sacrifice, which helped me to finish strong. I was reminded of how all the apostles abandoned Jesus on the way to the cross — that is, all of them, except John. It was a tremendously moving experience, not just from a social standpoint, but from a spiritual one as well.”

Prayerful faith in Christ was on Father Plow’s mind from start to finish. He offered the first 48 miles of the race for each of the 48 campus households in Steubenville. Miles 49-52 were offered for those who will be awarded the Spirit of St. Francis Scholarship, and the remaining distance was presented to God in thanksgiving.

“My fellow friars were thankful I made it through the race, and most of them thought I was crazy for entering it in the first place. It was gut-wrenching, to be sure, but it was also thrilling to be in it, especially because of its greater purpose,” Father Plow concluded. “I wanted to encourage holiness of life for students already at Franciscan University, and I wanted to enable incoming freshman to attend the school, despite their financial difficulties.”

Father Plow, who is the chaplain for the Steubenville chapter of LIFE Runners, said he will not be competing in the Wild Idaho Ultramarathon or any similar ultramarathons again. However, he won’t rule out shorter or less elevated ultramarathons, and he is scheduled to run in a standard one on Sept. 15.


Vocation Pitches

Father Larry Young is a diocesan priest whose athletic background includes baseball, backpacking and canoeing. In 2010, he recruited other priests and some seminarians to form the DC Padres, a Washington-area baseball team. Father Young plays and manages the squad as they compete against local high-school varsity teams, with the purpose of promoting vocations to the priesthood.

Most of the DC Padres have played high-school baseball, and about half of them have played on club or intercollegiate teams at the university level. Players on opposing teams and spectators in the stands have taken notice that this is not about washed-up baseball players retreating to slow-pitch softball, but still-fit players continuing in fast-pitch hardball. As Father Young said, “It is real baseball that we play against high-school teams. We’re throwing and hitting fastballs out there. It’s incredibly fun.”

Because of the primary obligations of priests and seminarians, Father Young’s team has only been able to play eight games in the past three years, yet they have a respectable 4-3-1 record, after winning their game on Aug. 25. “We would like to play more games, but, so far, that hasn’t been possible,” he said. “We just try to make the most of the games we have played, and we look forward to maybe one day playing in even larger venues.”

Each game, which is played at a minor-league stadium around metro Washington, includes a short vocation talk at the end of the third inning. One of the DC Padres gives his own personal testimony to the crowd, the largest of which so far was around 1,000 people. While no team-influenced vocations statistics are kept, Father Young hopes the talks — and his team’s play —will encourage the thought of the priesthood in spectators’ own discernment.

“People see us out here as normal, red-blooded American men enjoying our national pastime,”

Father Young observed. “We enjoy sports as much as anyone else, so we like to let young men know that a vocation to the priesthood doesn’t mean you’ll somehow have to give up every kind of recreation you formerly enjoyed.

“We want young men to see that it is a manly thing to be a priest and that Our Lord calls men to imitate him by laying down their lives in the service of his Church. One active and enjoyable way to communicate this message is through baseball, which we use not only to throw hardball pitches, but as a platform for a vocation pitch. We’ve found that sports and spirituality can easily go hand-in-hand.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.