Bringing the Church Into the World of Sports

Ray McKenna, the head of Catholic Athletes for Christ, is enthusiastic about the missionary mandate.

Ray McKenna, the founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Oct. 21, 2013.
Ray McKenna, the founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Oct. 21, 2013. (photo: Catholic Athletes for Christ)

Ray McKenna thought he was the only one in professional sports ministry experiencing anti-Catholic bias. In his volunteer work with Baseball Chapel, a Protestant group, he would hear things about the Catholic Church that weren’t true. He initially ignored the slights in the hope of obtaining a greater good: bringing athletes closer to God.

Yet, as time went on, McKenna discovered that his anti-Catholic experiences were shared by many, including five-time Kansas City Royals All-Star Mike Sweeney. “Mike and I met in the mid-1990s, while he was still in the minor leagues. I learned as we spoke over the years that he had experienced many of the same things I had in baseball: a strong Protestant outreach that, despite some of its pluses, had glaring minuses.”

Both McKenna and Sweeney attended a “nondenominational” Protestant ministry conference at which the Catholic Church was virulently attacked. A well-known Major League Baseball player who had been raised Catholic, but left the Church for a Protestant denomination, was now throwing out distortions about the Church to anyone who would listen.

“That was the most heartbreaking moment for me,” McKenna recalled. “I had heard negative things before then, but in that presentation, the Church’s positions were so distorted that you couldn’t even recognize what he was talking about. It was then that I really started to think in earnest about starting a distinctly Catholic organization in pro sports.”

In 2006, Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC) was born. The nonprofit organization started serving players in Major League Baseball, then expanded to the National Football League and other professional sports. Further participants include Olympic and collegiate athletes, and, most recently, high-school athletes.

CAC’s outreach to Catholic high-school students, or “Cathletes,” is a venture spearheaded by Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, N.J., and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. It is the first fully Catholic program of its kind, bringing a sound and detailed theology of sports into the world of high-school athletics.


Recent Vatican Meeting on Sports

“Sports, no matter what level, are a great way to spread the truth about Jesus Christ,” McKenna said. “Sports are very much a part of today’s culture, and, since Pope Francis has spoken of engaging the culture, evangelization through sports is a natural fit for us.”

Last Oct. 21, McKenna attended the Pontifical Council for Culture’s meeting on “believers in the world of sports,” the fourth such meeting held in the past 10 years. It was during this event that McKenna and CAC board member Linda Del Rio, the wife of Denver Broncos Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, were able to meet informally with Pope Francis.

McKenna said the meeting was “an amazing experience. It was so brief, yet so long. We only had a few moments with the Holy Father, but it was such a moving experience that it seemed to last forever. Linda handed Pope Francis a football that was signed by Denver Broncos players. He explained that he liked football, too — namely, the soccer variety.”

McKenna saw the Vatican event as part of a continued recognition and confirmation of the importance of sports in the areas of catechesis and evangelization. He believes that because sports should be a means of teaching and living the Catholic faith, it was rewarding to have that ideal widely acknowledged and promoted by the Church.

While the Church can trace sporting references back to the writing of the New Testament, the philosophy and theology of sports have become more refined, especially since the first half of the 20th century. McKenna loves to share a 1946 Pope Pius XII passage on the meaning of sports:

“Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator.”

A few weeks after his Roman journey, McKenna, back home in the Arlington, Va., area, presided over the CAC’s third annual Courage Awards on Nov. 13. At the ceremony, professional soccer-player-turned seminarian Deacon Chase Hilgenbrinck was honored for his “bold and courageous testimony regarding his Catholic faith, both within and outside the world of sports.”


Retreat Moves Players Forward to Christ

Less than a week after the Courage Awards, McKenna was off to Malibu, Calif., for the annual CAC Baseball Retreat, which took place Nov. 19-21.

The annual retreat is one of the most-appreciated aspects of CAC for Mike Sweeney, who serves as chairman of CAC’s Athlete Advisory Board. He sees the event as a way of bonding with like-minded, faith-focused men: “One of the most appealing things about Ray’s group is its yearly retreat in Malibu. Baseball players and other athletes, their priest-chaplains, and even Catholics in the entertainment industry, go to this great event.”

Sweeney sees the retreat as a “very rewarding and spiritually-nourishing environment” to be a part of. He has received spiritual nourishment from presenters and has also given spiritual nourishment himself. At the 2013 installment, Sweeney provided food for thought through a dynamic presentation on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role in the lives of Christians.

“If you want to see how to fulfill the will of God, look no further than Mary,” Sweeney said. “She is the first Christian, the ideal Christian and the Christian who brings Christ to all Christians. She has such an exalted position because of her humility in accepting and carrying out God’s will. We can learn so much from her life, which was a continual devotion to Christ. As the saying goes, ‘No Mary, no Jesus. Know Mary, know Jesus.’”

“It’s important to realize that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church,” the former Royals first baseman emphasized. “The Catholic Church is the home of those who want to follow Christ to the fullest. It’s more than just picking the correct group, though; it’s about being a living member of the body of Christ. It’s about the intimate union we have with Our Savior in the Eucharist, when we literally have the blood of God Incarnate running through our veins. It’s not possible to be closer to Jesus in this life.”

This closeness is something that has appealed to Sweeney since his days in the minor leagues. While most other Catholic players away from home for the first time seemed to slacken in the practice of their faith, Sweeney was drawn even closer to the Eucharist. As others stopped going to Mass and confession and sometimes started attending Protestant worship services, Sweeney went out of his way to get to a Catholic church at least every Sunday.

“I was personally drawn to the Eucharist in a way that made it easy for me to make the sacrifices necessary to get to Mass on Sundays,” Sweeney said. “I would wake up early, take a cab to a church and get fed by God through the Scriptures, but even more so by the Eucharist. It would be a good number of years later that the Mass was more readily available to players, who then became more aware of how much it meant to them.”

Sweeney is appreciative of McKenna’s efforts to bring the sacraments closer to players. “CAC has been instrumental in bringing the Mass to a majority of MLB stadiums. That used to be nonexistent, but now it’s very common. It’s much easier to be a practicing Catholic in professional baseball these days, and that is due mostly to Ray McKenna.”


Extending Brotherly Love

Another baseball player who has benefited from the expansion of CAC is Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Justin De Fratus. The 26-year-old California native met McKenna at spring training in 2011 and has grown in his faith ever since.

“When I first started in pro ball, you’d think everyone on the team was either a Protestant or just nonreligious,” De Fratus said. “You wouldn’t even know who the Catholics were. In the past three years, however, I’ve come across more and more guys I didn’t know were Catholic. It's been a very pleasant revelation to me that there's a Catholic community in baseball.”

That community has extended beyond the baseball field for De Fratus, who attended the annual Malibu retreat in 2012 and 2013. These experiences have been meaningful to him in part because of Mike Sweeney’s presence: “Ever since I saw the Champions of Faith DVD in 2007, I’ve been a huge fan of Mike’s. He’s been an inspiration to me, not so much from a baseball standpoint, but from a spiritual one. Yes, his playing career was outstanding, but more impressive is the way Mike strives to live his Catholic faith.”

Living that faith has become easier for De Fratus, who is now very much aware of the blessing it is to have like-minded friends in the world of sports: “It is a relief to know you’re not the only one trying to do God’s will. The sacramental presence provided by CAC has been a huge support, and I’m thankful that Ray McKenna has been key in bringing this about. He always seems to be occupied with serving athletes in one way or another.”

Following a full schedule ending last year — including Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in December — McKenna has plenty of projects to undertake in the first half of this year. Among them are the annual NFL Combine Mass, the inaugural NFL Retreat, a new-and-improved website and a more extensive catechetical training plan for professional athletes.

With McKenna’s heavy schedule, does he have any regrets? “Only that I didn’t start CAC sooner.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.