Mount St. Mary Seminary has a tradition of allowing seminarians to act as sports chaplains for the university’s sports teams. Thanks to the work of now-Father Jacob Ramos, who was head chaplain at the time, I was asked to act as sports chaplain for the women’s rugby team —– a group that had not had sports chaplains the previous four years.
What that meant for me was that I was working with a team that had no idea what a sports chaplain was supposed to do, and I didn’t either. Throwing everything against the wall for the past three semesters to see what would stick, this is the story of an unlikely chaplain evangelizing an unlikely team.
The first semester was one of disappointment and perseverance. Although I was told the team really wanted chaplains, it didn’t seem like that. Coming in halfway through a losing season, there weren’t many players that seemed happy for us to be there. While my co-chaplain was a warm and outgoing presence, my first few weeks were spent standing around wondering what to do or say. Lacking what I thought was the requisite charisma, I made an extra effort, making it to as many practices, games and team dinners as I could to try and get to know the 40 players on the team.
The second semester was when things turned around. Early on, I decided to help two players advertise for their volleyball tournament. They were only supposed to advertise for 30 minutes, but I spent the next four hours with them, answering every question they had about Catholicism, bringing them to adoration and lighting prayer candles.
These two players came at the end of the semester to my lector installation Mass —– for one, it was her first Mass; for the other, it was her first Mass since her confirmation. At a student athlete retreat, six players and their assistant coach came to play games and learn how to include Jesus in their lives. Eight players came to Mass that semester, three for the first time. Ten came to spend a couple of minutes in silent prayer or adoration. Two even asked me for help in learning how to pray well. Not every day was a success, but it was clear that I had established some real trust with the players.
In the last semester, things slowed down quite a bit. With a new cohort of freshmen and a new co-chaplain, there was much work to do to develop new relationships. There is always something new to learn (and always a new fire to help put out). But time and time again, I was impressed with how open and willing the players were to learning about Catholicism.
I look forward to continuing this adventure in helping these players develop a relationship with Jesus. If you have never seen a women’s rugby game before, the Mount sometimes plays games at Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac if you would like to come and support the team.
By Mark Johnson