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Does God answer prayers for sporting victory?

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power of sport - The Catholic weekly
Contributors to the ACBC’s ‘Open the Way’ document (left to right) Malcolm Hart, Mgr John Woods, Helene O’Neill, Stephen Reid, Archbishop Christopher Prowse and Matthew Biddle. Photo: Ryan Macalandag.

Pope Francis’ blessing of the Croatian national team at the Vatican last week didn’t quite work out how they’d have hoped, given the results of the first round of the UEFA Euros last Sunday.

The Holy Father’s message must have been ringing in the players’ ears after their crushing 3-0 defeat at the hands of Spain.

“Your role goes beyond the sphere of sports and becomes a model of success and successful living,” the pope said.

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“So it is important for you to cultivate spiritual and human qualities in order to set a good example.”

A defeat that profound was probably not the “model of success” the Croatians were hoping for.

Perhaps they can take solace from the connection between sport and evangelisation in a new document from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Open the Way to Christ: Fostering a Pastoral Ministry of Sport, released last week.

“Competitors are called to rejoice in their gifts, to acknowledge their limitations and to recognise and applaud the skills of their opponents,” the conference wrote.

“Sport teaches us that life is not always fair, but we are encouraged to pick ourselves up in a spirit of perseverance, to learn and to commit wholeheartedly to the next contest.”

power of sport - The Catholic weekly
Pope Francis with Croatian football player. Photo: Vatican media.

Still, it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning, as Boston Celtics head coach and devout Catholic Joe Mazulla can attest.

Last month Mazulla revealed he arrives early to games at Madison Square Garden to walk around the court and pray his rosary, made from the original arena’s timber.

Tuesday’s newly crowned NBA champions are now surely headed to Jerusalem, where the coach expressed a desire to take the team.

“Most people go to Disney World or whatever but … I think [the Holy Land is] the most important place to go back and recentre yourself,” he said.

Closer to home, NRL players from Penrith, Manly and the Bulldogs have recently begun coming together with opposition players in post-match prayer on the field.

It’s tough to imagine the Canterbury-Bankstown players jetting off to celebrate in the Holy Land (Beirut might be a more likely option), but can the success of these teams so far this year suggest that after the Croatian footballers’ defeat, God has finally been proven to be an NRL fan?

Perhaps it’s the holiness of their intercessors? With so many Sydney priests praying for the Dogs, miracles are bound to happen.

But what about our bishops? Some are perhaps better known for their spiritual exercises, but not Open the Way contributor, Archbishop of Canberra Christopher Prowse.

After an enquiry from The Catholic Weekly, the archbishop’s office let us know he is an avid swimmer, cyclist and dedicated Hawthorn supporter, whose father played professionally for the AFL club.

Though the Hawks haven’t won a premiership in nearly 10 years, Archbishop Prowse leaves us plenty of lessons to take from Open the Way, namely that sport has always been and will always be a “human activity that reflects the beauty, splendour and wonder of God’s creation.”

“It will continue to attract people around the world because there is undoubtedly something inherently good about it.”

While for many athletes and spectators sporting endeavours are a secular pastime, win or lose, the arena will always be there for Christians who want to “have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).

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