There can be an Uneasy Intersection Between Faith and Sports
Are you praying for victory? When your favorite sports team is ready to take the court, field, or pitch, do you ask God to help them win?
It might seem like a frivolous question in light of all the problems facing the world. After all, there are more important things for God to worry about than who wins the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
The question of whether it is “Christian” to pray for victory in a sporting event arose, in fact, during the middle rounds of the 2021 NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament before the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers faced off against the University of Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illinois was favored to clobber Loyola, but the Ramblers seemed to have a secret weapon, the only chaplain of a college team who is as famous as the team: Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM, who “went viral” during Loyola’s 2018 march to the Final Four of the tournament.
A youthful 98 during the earlier tournament and now at the age of 101 she was there to support her team again this year. In her role as chaplain, she offered a prayer for the team before they took the court to face Illinois.
“As we play the Fighting Illini, we ask for special help to overcome this team and get a great win. We hope to score early and make our opponents nervous. We have a great opportunity to convert rebounds as this team makes about 50 percent of layups and 30 percent of its 3 points. Our defense can take care of that.”
That certainly sounds like a prayer for victory, although one television commentator joked that it sounded more like a scouting report. Just for the record, Loyola won the game in a surprising upset, although probably less surprising to Sr. Jean than the oddsmakers.
America, the Jesuit Magazine, surveyed its readers in 2018 on whether they pray for their team to win: only 23 percent said they did. But according to Pew Research, more than half of Americans pray at least daily, which is a higher percentage than other “wealthy” nations.
Catholics recognize five basic categories of prayer:
Adoration and Worship – many of these are part of the Mass.
Petition – asking for something but always on the condition of accepting God’s will.
Intercession – asking for something for others.
Thanksgiving – the one most often neglected.
Praise – praise God for what he is.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church spends much time on the subject of prayer. In number 2559 it makes the purpose of prayer explicit: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer, Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.”
The Catechism is silent on the subject of praying for the home team. However, depending on the nature of a “sports” prayer, it could fall into the petition, intercession, or thanksgiving category. For example:
Prayer of Petition: Please, Lord, help me to play my best today.
Prayer of Intercession: Please, Lord, protect my players from injury during today’s game.
Thanksgiving: Thank you, Lord, that we tried our best and nobody was injured.
There is a long tradition in the United States (and some other free countries) of prayer before sporting events. In recent times, it has become controversial at the public-school level, with obvious confusion over the real meaning of the separation of Church and State. But even in the “public” context, players, coaches, parents, and fans often say a prayer before a competition.
There also is a long tradition at all levels of sports for teams to kneel together in prayer before or after a game. Again, in recent times the tradition has been a bit controversial with athletes sometimes kneeling in protest rather than prayer.
An informal Exaudi survey on the subject garnered some insightful and representative responses:
I always prayed the rosary during every game. It calmed me. I would ask for the team to play their best, and for no injuries, and if it was God’s will, I asked for a victory. My son tells me he knew I was praying and it meant a lot to him that I prayed during each of his games. – A mom of four post-high school children
If I pray for a team, it would be something like this: Dear God, if it is your will, please let this team win, if not, thy will be done. – A mom with grown children and young grandchildren
If you are a fan and you are obsessed with it and basing your value as a person on it then no you should not pray because your values are out of whack. You should not place that much value on something that isn’t God, your identity isn’t sports. So many people seem to worship sports as crazy as that sounds but true. Then I think we need to look at the bigger picture of what is important in our lives. BUT if you are the athlete playing I think it is different. No your value as an athlete isn’t based on winning or losing it is on your God-given talents. But you can and should pray for help using your talents in a positive way. Ask to be able to have the strength to give it your all for yourself, others, and to give glory to God. Our talents should give glory to God in how we use them. – A mom with young children.
In general, I think it’s ok to pray for anything that would help myself or others grow closer to God. I don’t think it’s going to help me or others grow closer to God if the team I’m rooting for wins. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for a team that I’m rooting for to win, so I can’t answer your second question. If I was playing in the game, then I could see myself praying for many things (Charity towards other players that are frustrating, humility to do my best without showing off or boasting, or praying for virtues in my teammates or opponents). – A dad with toddlers – who was a former star high school athlete
A quick walk around the internet will turn up a plethora of suggestions about how to pray regarding sports. Connectus has a library of prayers for athletes and their supporters. Included prayers:
Prayer before Tough Game
Prayer for Sportsmanship Conduct
Prayer for Referees
Prayer for Exhaustion
Author’s Note: I made a prayer for family unity before the Loyola-Illinois basketball. Five members of my immediate family are graduates of Illinois. My son graduated from Loyola. My prayers were answered and everyone exhibited great sportsmanship.