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Sport and Christian joy

Fr Paul A McGavin  |  11 November 2018

sportCan sports bring us closer to God? Pope Francis certainly thinks so.

Christian joy is rooted in embracing our life in its fullness, and allowing the grace of God to infuse our whole lives. Looked at in this way, a Christian life is not just ‘spiritual’, but embraces our whole persons, ‘body, mind and spirit’.

The Psalmist can sing, ‘I thank God for the wonder of my being’ (Psalm 138:14). This view leads us to bring the beauty and the glory of God to all aspects of our lives: the wonder of God’s presence in prayer; the wonder of the gift of intellect in my mind; and the wonder of the gift of my body. For me, the joy of the wonder of my body is specially so in sport.


I have experienced this throughout my life. I am now aged 75, and have been running daily across more than 50 years, during which my prayer is rather free-flow and my thinking rather like the breeze. No wonder I find it so refreshing, and still have a youthful pulse-rate. In my youth, I was passionate about rock-climbing and abseiling. In this I learned to trust the climb leader; I learned prudently to plan the route and to assess the risks; to depend upon my buddies. I also encountered the wonder of seeing wildernesses from heights.

Across the last 10 years, my passion has been bodybuilding that engages one with gym buddies; requires great care in pushing limits while yet avoiding injury; close attention to nutrition; and enjoying improvements in physique.


The competitive aspect of this sport was nicely captured at a recent competition when I overheard a much younger buddy asked, ‘Were you disappointed?’, when he missed a top-3 placing. His reply was, ‘Well, I would have liked to be placed. But it was a great privilege to compete with such outstanding athletes, and I am happy.’ His response captures the camaraderie that genuine sports display, with a deep respect for persons in their varying ages, aptitudes and achievements. Pope Francis nicely expressed this when he recently wrote, ‘For the Christian athlete, holiness consist in living sports as a means of encounter, personality formation, witnessing, and proclaiming the joy of being a Christian with the people around oneself.’ These words were in introducing a document, Giving the Best of Yourself, recently published by the new department of the Roman Curia for Laity, Family and Life.

Giving the Best of Yourself acknowledges the unfortunate fact that ‘the faithful are seldom aware that the Church accepts and perceives sport in a positive way’, and proposes sports to the faithful as a ‘beneficial lifelong activity’ (n. 5.3).


I have experienced the transformational influence of sport in my own life and prayer. It is now not unusual for younger and achieving athletes – both male and female – to make remarks like, ‘You are an inspiration! I hope when I am your age I can be like you!’ In itself, this is not a proclamation of the Gospel. It is part of a manner of living that cultivates the ‘everyday holiness’ that Pope Francis advocates, with such engagement in sport serving as ‘… an instrument of human elevation toward the supernatural goal to which we are called’.

Rev Dr Paul Anthony McGavin is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, resident in Sydney, Australia.


Topic tags: sportandfairplay, healthycommunitylife, prayerliturgyandthesacraments

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