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Catholic Athletes for Christ

Keeping the faith alive – on and off the field

By James Breig

Many athletes today openly show their religious faith. In baseball, batters trace the Sign of the Cross in the dirt before digging in. If they slam a homer, they point upward to thank God. In pro and college football, players gather, drop to one knee and share a prayer. During the Olympics, religious medals dangle from necks with gold medals, and winners often tell reporters that they owe everything to the Lord.

While athletes who are public about their religious beliefs are often evangelicals, more and more are Roman Catholics – and many of them belong to Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC).

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Based in Alexandria, Va., CAC was founded three years ago by Ray McKenna, an attorney who had witnessed firsthand the inroads being made by other denominations in clubhouses and locker rooms.

“I became involved with these ministries through friends who know I love evangelization and sports,” he said. “I participated in so-called ‘non-denominational’ ministries because there were no such Catholic programs. I say ‘so-called’ because they are not really non-denominational in the way the term is widely understood to mean ‘ecumenical.’ They are usually anti-Catholic and, in fact, anti-traditional Protestant faiths.”

After praying to the Holy Spirit, McKenna noted, “I perceived his inspiration to start an organization for Catholic athletes that is faithful to the Magisterium and authentically Catholic.”

CAC’s mission, he said, is “to serve Catholic athletes through provision of the sacraments and evangelization through sports. The goal is to create an authentic Catholic identity and fellowship at all levels of sports, including youth sports. Towards this end, we are working with Catholic universities, colleges and high schools to start CAC chapters.”

The first collegiate chapter was formed at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, chairman of CAC’s episcopal board, believes it is “very important to have worthy role models in sports. I like to see players make the Sign of the Cross. I take hope in that. They connect their profession to the presence of God in their lives. It gives glory to God, who should be part of every life and every institution in life. Athletes would be more fulfilled” if they would add a religious aspect to their lives.

All-Star for Christ

One of those witnesses is Mike Sweeney, a veteran All-Star baseball player who has been with the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners. On his website, he describes his efforts to do good in addition to playing well.

Mike Sweeney and his son, Michael

Mike Sweeney and his son, Michael

He and his wife, Shara, have a foundation with these goals: “to bring youth into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ; to grow the ministry of Life Teen, an outreach to youth; to assist pro-life ministries, particularly crisis pregnancy centers; to bring unity between Catholics and Protestants; to host Christian baseball camps all across the country; to reach out to urban youth and urban missions; and to use music ministry to bring the Gospel to the lost.”

In an interview with Fathers for Good, Sweeney noted that “my Catholic faith means everything to me. Because of this gift from God, I get to live with the Lord for eternity, not just for 80 years here on earth and not for a million years, but forever. The gift of faith in Jesus is a gift from heaven. I am proud to say that I am a Catholic Christian whose inheritance lies in heaven.”

He has grown in that faith, he added, explaining that “when I got to the big leagues in 1995, I was often asked to speak to churches, youth groups and schools, and oftentimes was encouraged to speak about my faith. Many times, I spoke at non-Catholic churches, which is wonderful in itself, but my message was diluted because I didn't proclaim my Catholic Christian faith due to fear of rejection.”

Over time, he continued, “I came to understand I am a Catholic Christian man of God, so I began to dig deeper in my Catholic faith, and understand and embrace the beauty of it. I became more bold as I fell in love with the Bible, the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist. Through the years, I went from a young man who was a proud Christian to a man who was willing to shout it on the mountaintop that I was a Catholic man who loved and lived out my faith.”

Athletes like Sweeney can have a major impact on people, McKenna believes. “As a result of the great popularity of sports,” he explained, “athletes have access and a platform to reach a wide audience, especially among the young. Further, as St. Paul illustrates in many of his epistles, sports provide wonderful analogies to the spiritual life. For example, the qualities needed to be a good athlete – dedication, perseverance, faithfulness – are essential to a good spiritual life.”

Asked what story best captures the success of CAC, McKenna replied, “Thankfully, this is a hard question because we have been blessed with so many successes in a relatively short time. Just recently, one of our writers published a book Living the Eucharist through Sports. He credits CAC with the inspiration for his book. Two of our ‘Cathletes’ – Jeff Suppan, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Kate Ziegler, an Olympic swimmer – represented CAC in Rome in the first-ever Vatican conferences on sports and faith.”

James Breig is the retired as editor of The Evangelist newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.