Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Football and Catholicism

'We are all Christians. We arc all different but we have one common captain in Christ.
"If the players of a football team are prepared to give up so much, to do so much, to submerge so many differences and characteristics to gain-what? Perhaps fame, perhaps a cup should we not quite honestly be prepared to overlook our own differences often our own petty individual dislikes -and get on with our team work for and with Christ?
"Make no mistake about it, we are all on the same side. We are all members of the same Christian team, Evil is our opponent wherever it may show its head. Christ is not only our captain. He is our model and inspiration."
Matt Busby , 1970 (Former Manchester United manager and Knight Commander of St. Gregory The Great)



When the world turns its unmitigated attention towards Brazil this summer, it will be watching a sport that has gone hand in hand with the Catholic faith in many parts of the world for decades. The World Cup, despite all of its flawed commercialism and questionable organisers, lives in the sporting world as an entity that no other can rival. Such is the popularity of the sport that even in a country with where it is not played to a high standad such as Ireland, perhaps only the Eucharistic Congress and Pope John Paul II's visit here can rival the collective fondness for our World Cup exploits between 1990 and 2002.
 The hallmarks of Catholic involvement in soccer have often been borne not of a coincidental nature, but embodiments of the Cardinal Virtues themselves. There is prudence to involve others in administering roles on and off the field.

 Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ

 The temperance necessary to keep fit, to maintain a healthy balance between work and play. 

for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 

Diego Maradona with his Rosary beads before a World Cup game


And fortitude and justice from the training ground to the 90th minute, each game is a battle and a test of a man's inner resolve. 

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

The rise of clubs that have, or at one point had, a strong Catholic ethos was often closely connected with the grittiest working class.
 In late 19th century Scotland, Irish immigrants were anathema to the Protestant population. The famine had created a generation of Irish diaspora, desperate and despondent, with little to enamour them to their host population. So they looked inward before they could be integrated externally. To cater for the need of a growing underclass, the clergy took action to include their laity in an organised version of the game that was making up most of the leisure time of their Protestant neighbours. Hibernian F.C were formed in Edinburgh to appease this necessity. To put it in to perspective, a mere 20 years had passed since the famine. That meant that Catholics could recall the trauma of being forced abroad by the scourge of creative genocide that devastated Ireland's century. The Catholic Young Men's Society provided the breeding ground, as Cannon Hannan organised local Catholics and arranged friendly matches.

       Cannon Edward Hannan                                   Brother Walfrid





Down the road, in Glasgow, 1887 was the famed year that Celtic were formed. In each instance, and countless others on a micro level, the clergy recognised something innate within the heart of men. A want for social interaction, for inclusion, for a recreational outlet for masculinity otherwise squandered and frustrated in back-breaking labour for subservient occupations. Brother Walfrid and Canon Edward Hannan knew what could galvanise the laity, channel their energy and keep them away from any undesirable aspects of integration with a predominantly Protestant community. They were genuine shepherds, seeking to keep their flock from the horrors of gang life and the indignity that poverty grants unto men.

This engagement with the sport was mirrored throughout the world, with 1907 seeing the seminarians at the Royal English College at Valladolid triumphing over the mighty Real Madrid.
It is not difficult to see why the football establishment would have been antagonistic towards Catholics and specifically, Catholic clubs. In a century where no less than 17 Papal Encyclicals were written against Freemasonry, a sport that had its official rules written in a Masonic lodge was never going to be friendly to those of the faith. This institutional antagonism was subtle in England but openly practised in Scotland, where it was made as difficult as possible for clubs with a Catholic ethos to thrive.
These initial frictions, in structure and organisation, mask a reality of the uplifting nature of the game in the streets. Hand a group of little boys a ball in any age or setting, and watch politics become as trivial as they can become. That priests recognised this is an anachronistic detail the those used to the often socially awkward post-Vatican II clergy. Argentina's current champions, San Lorenzo De Almagro were in fact named for a priest who played a part in their inception, after taking an interest in offering boys a place to play football other than dangerously on the road. Said club have now the current Pope Francis to count amongst their fans as well as decades of success to reflect upon. The innocent nature of some of the stories of Catholic involvement in these clubs is a pre-conciliar curiosity to the post-Vatican II generation. It seems unfathomable in the 21st century to imagine a priest taking a pastoral interest in the formation of young men, let alone in active and confident participation in their sporting habits. 


And yet, it seems so apt that they are not. The post-Vatican II generation of clergy is inherently feminised in the most shallow manner possible. No, not with the true femininity of Our Lady or of St. Therese de Liseux, but rather with a pseudo-femininity found in men who insincerely want to ape gentleness, in order to appease those who deem the faith to be lacking in tact for the world and its materialism. Priests of this ilk also have the added handicap of a self-pitying sulkiness towards what young people are actually interested in, these men prefer acoustic guitars and hand-clapping to speaking as equals capable of recognising another's capacity for captivation. Young men need direction, not bemusement. Going to a Mass where the priest goes through the motions in between any combination of folk and gospel music, is as inauthentic to a disillusioned young man as any of the miscellaneous societal authority figures who appear to be failures and hypocrites.  No different from an absent father, corrupt politician or greedy banker.

Vatican City football team


The real problem is that the 60s generation are still quite busy imposing their beliefs upon a younger generation, who are far more easily attracted to tradition than flippant progressivism. One such example is the charismatic movement within the Church. Lauded by Francis as an influential 'gift' to the Church, they are in reality a collection of stubborn elderly figures who receive little of no affection or attention from young Catholics, especially young men. 
There are Catholic values and souls at stake in sport and a combination of the two can be a wonderful asset to giving a young man his sense of self-worth. Easy it is to judge all professional footballers as egoistic and self-absorbed, but some in particular have given striking public displays of Catholic faith. These range from the ordinary, blessing oneself when coming onto the pitch. To the extraordinary. Javier Hernandez's brave displays of prayer before each game are a thrill for any Catholic sports fan. Chicharito, as he is affectionately known, offers a bold visual image of a Catholic on his knees, unafraid of a potentially judgemental public. This led to worries in 2010 over whether or not it would be safe for him to play against the rabid anti-Catholic team Rangers F.C., a nastiness which Chicharito's manager Sir Alex Ferguson was familiar with after being forced out of the club for marrying a Catholic. Chicharito's understanding of the relationship between football and faith is the type that priests should encourage. Each game should begin with a thank you to God. For giving the player their talents. There should be a request too, for the safety of all involved, and to play with integrity and honesty.

Chicharito is not the only player to seek God amidst a life of fame and fortune. There have been men such as American Chase Hilgenbrinck  and former Manchester United player Philip Mulryne who have walked away from the sport to become priests. And there are others, such as Andres Iniesta who promised to walk the Camino Santiago after scoring the winning goal in the World Cup in 2010. 

The current crisis of faith that the Catholic Church is going through, stems from the sad interpretation of faith, by secular society, as a solely feminine or anti-intellectual pursuit. Ask a young footballer today, in front of his team-mates, and he will scoff at the Ned Flanders archetypes that he feels make up the Church. Everyone is good, I love you you love me morality has past its sell-by date (if it ever had one). What holds young men back from joining the Church is not expressions of sure-footed faith, but the doubts that are cast by so many from on top regarding the genuine convictions that Catholics should hold. 

Having the faith should be presented as something totally ordinary, living the faith as something totally extraordinary. 

One striking example of this, especially interesting for anyone who has been following the World Cup, is the contrast between  England pair Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge. Even the most partisan of Liverpool fans can agree that Wayne is a bigger star than Daniel and for most of his career, a better player too. Yet, it is Sturridge who seems more at ease with himself and more comfortable with expressing his faith. Both men are Catholic, and yet Sturridge's Catholicism seems altogether more self-assured than that of Rooney. Why? Rooney has been made delete comments on God from his Twitter account and was even told by the FA that he would not be allowed to comment on God in press conferences. This all seems a bit much for a man who otherwise seems to have some measure of faith (despite scandals in his private life). Admitting that he prays before matches, Rooney said 

Daniel Sturridge praying after scoring
Wayne Rooney displaying his rosary beads at training


 'I don’t pray to help me score goals. I pray for the health of me and everyone on the pitch. 
'It is something I have always done. I pray at night. 
'I pray for my family and friends and for the health of everyone I love.'

Rooney also wears rosary beads around his neck at training and has a large Celtic cross tattooed on him. So why isn't he bolder in his expressions of faith? Probably because he has been made to care what others think of him, whereas Sturridge reconciled himself to profess his faith regardless of what others think of him. Young men should be taught, like Sturridge, to express their faith boldly when prompted, be they in work or playing sport. 

As we await the outcome of this World Cup, some food for thought. Catholic nations have won the World Cup every year, save for one. In that one year, 1966, a devout Catholic by the name of Nobby Stiles provided an image which has endured amongst England fans ever since. After a 4-2 win over West Germany, Stiles danced on the pitch, his false teeth out, like he hadn't a care in the world. His bemusement with winning the biggest prize in sport belied the po-faced nature of his fellow countrymen. 

  
Nobby Stiles

To a Catholic, football is not and should not ever be seen as a substitute religion, as many banners insinuate. The solidarity of the crowds on the terraces, of the players and of those at home should always be with a recognition that the game is not above God. It is a glorious effort to make the most of all of the talents that Our Lord has bestowed upon us. The long fight to reclaim the souls of young men in nominally Catholic countries that have become apostate, begins with reclaiming the notion that masculinity and faith are intertwined and interdependent. Whether this means forming new Catholic football clubs, instructing young men in sermons at Mass or encouraging famous players to speak boldly on their faith, the thought that the world's favourite game is ignored by the clergy makes no sense. 

Sport should make a man suffer in the seeking of a greater good, a collective good. Anyone who will have seen or read about the exploits of SSPX members lately, will have read about their polite and dignified game of soccer in which they respected each other at all times, without the need for a referee. Fully dressed in cossacks. 



"Perfect love means putting up with other people's shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them." —St. Therese of Lisieux

Pope John Paul II , who was by all accounts a handy goal-keeper in his youth, once declared, 'Show me what you love and I will show you who you are'. Young men have shown us, through their love of football, that fraternity, passion and masculinity are the hallmarks of their inner selves. If we wish them to grow and become at one with Christ, we need to let them know that faith and sport are not mutually exclusive. As recent convert to the faith Wesley Sneijder and countless others have found, the glory of this world pales in comparison to the glory of the next. Perhaps that is why Catholics have excelled at this sport better than any others, the innate beauty of the sport makes the most of this world, with an irreverence that keeps an eye on the next. 

Brazil's 2002 World Cup winners pray on the field after winning


Eternal destinies of souls are at stake over the course of each of those 90 minutes. Our beloved Pope Pius XII, said it best. Football is another beautiful drama amongst the most central in the universe, the struggle of man to become everything that God intended him to be:

"Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development then. 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."
– Pope Pius XII,Sport at the Service of the Spirit July 29, 1945

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