Catholic Athletes for Christ Stresses the Mind-Body-Soul Link

Group immerses athletes, young and old, in ‘running the race marked out for us.’

Children run during a Vatican sports event on Oct. 20.
Children run during a Vatican sports event on Oct. 20. (photo: CNA/Lauren Cater)

VATICAN CITY — In light of recent events at the Vatican honoring the bond of sports and faith, one Catholic organization revealed its goal to both evangelize through sports, as well as form athletes on an integral level.

“We work to support athletes by providing them the sacraments; and once they are properly catechized and formed, we encourage them and try to promote them to go out and try to share the Good News, to share their faith, as applied in their sport — and that's our evangelization component,” Ray McKenna said in an Oct. 20 interview.

McKenna is the founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, which was formed as a response to Blessed John Paul II's call to evangelize the world of sports.

Speaking of the organization's close collaboration with the Vatican’s office for sports, McKenna stressed that “some of the fruits are: there's interest in sports and the Church's perspective on sports.”

“One of the things we wish to share is the rich teaching history of the Church [on sports], and many people are unaware of that,” he noted, recalling how St. Paul, whom they refer to as “the first sports writer,” spoke used the analogies of a “prize fight, a race” and “running for an eternal crown.”

The organization's president also reflected on the “brilliant, excellent, explication” from many different popes on the subject of the theology of sports, beginning with an encyclical of Pope Pius XII in which he spoke “beautifully [about] the proper interaction between the body, mind and the soul.”

“Sadly,” he noted, “a lot of people just look at it as a pursuit of the body.”

McKenna also spoke of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, stressing that he “has given one of the most beautiful, I think, discussions of why sports is important,” which is interesting, because the former pope, “is not an athlete per se.”

Recalling how, during his papacy, Benedict was asked in an audience why sports are important to God, McKenna noted that the Holy Father’s response was: “Yes, God cares about sports because God cares about man, and man cares about sports. So anything that is important to man is important to God.”

“Man is created by God the Father, created in the image of God, recreated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and daily renewed by the Holy Spirit,” McKenna stated, paraphrasing Benedict’s words.

“So [he spoke of] the Trinitarian approach of the Church to sports, and then, obviously, the next logical step is that sports should reflect also ... man properly understood and therefore God (understood).”

As for Pope Francis' take on the matter, the organization's president drew attention to the fact that he constantly emphasizes the need for the Church to “go into the culture and engage the culture,” stressing that this is part of the mission of Catholic Athletes for Christ.

“What we do is to go share the Good News in a pro-active way.”

Often in the secular world, especially within sports, McKenna noted that the Church’s teachings are viewed as “black and white and condemning.”

He said that a big part of the mission of his organization is to show that “the Church's teachings are much more beautiful and richer than that,” stressing that what “they give you is a new perspective on life, a new way of life,” which “can get lost if it's a simplistic understanding of rights and wrongs, as opposed to a holistic understanding of the human person as engaged in sports.”

As a means of attaining this holistic care, Catholic Athletes for Christ provides the opportunity for players to receive the sacraments, primarily Mass and confession, at sporting venues.

Proudly announcing new initiatives within the organization, McKenna highlighted a new diocesan-wide high-school program that will be launching in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., under Bishop David O'Connell.

“We're really excited,” he said. “Our first focus was on the professional athlete; then the Olympic athlete; then the collegiate athlete. And, now, we have something to offer” for younger athletes.