For 17 years, I have wanted to write a column, in the spirit of St. Paul, on the spiritual lessons all of us can learn from the New England Patriots, but Sunday's extraordinary comeback victory against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51) finally pushed me over the edge.
For the first time in the history of the papacy, last Sunday Pope Francis recorded a Super Bowl message.
"Great sporting events like today's Super Bowl," he said, "are highly symbolic, showing that it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace. By participating in sport, we are able to go beyond our own self-interest and in a healthy way we learn to sacrifice, to grow in fidelity and respect the rules." He finished by praying, "May this year's Super Bowl be a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity for the world."
His message underlined what so many athletes and coaches, parents and educators have long known, that sports are a school in which one can be formed in so many virtues and skills necessary for life: teamwork, self-discipline, asceticism, docility, selflessness, dependability, perseverance, focus, preparation and training, poise under pressure, sportsmanship, how to celebrate and how to handle setbacks. Sports are a means to bring people together in common purpose, whether we're dealing with neighborhoods, high schools, universities, huge geographical regions, or, in the Olympics and World Cup, whole nations. Sports have also proven to be culturally and historically far more than just games, expediting processes of racial integration and the overcoming of warring tensions.
It's unsurprising that St. Paul found sports a fitting analogy for various aspects of the spiritual life. He wrote to the Christians in Corinth, where the famous Isthmian Games, dating to the sixth century BC, took place: "Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it (1 Cor 9:24-26).
He told his spiritual son St. Timothy, "Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future" (1 Tim 4:7).
He pronounced his valedictory in sports' terms: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith, and from now on the crown of righteousness awaits me (2 Tim 4:7-8).
St. Paul was someone who ran to win, who disciplined himself to be a disciple, and who sought to train the first Christians not to be losers or benchwarmers but eternal Hall of Famers. He called them to be properly ambitious, to train, to fight and to run so as to win: If athletes work so hard to win trophies, belts, rings and medals for themselves, or teammates, or regions, he challenged them to compete to win an imperishable wreath for and from God, to do more spiritual exercises than a professional athlete does physical ones.
And it's clear that this championship sporting spirit was what sustained him to persevere in crisscrossing the ancient world to preach the Gospel, to wade through swamps and climb up steep mountains, to endure cold, exposure and hunger, to confront head-on the danger of those who were trying to kill him, and not to be deterred by multiple scourgings, stoning, and three shipwrecks that led him to tread water for a full day and night on the sea (2 Cor 11:23-27). This fighting spirit helped to make him, in terms of the Church's mission, the GOAT (greatest of all time), and like a coach or a dad he sought to impart that same holy grit to his spiritual sons and daughters in the Church.
For 17 years, I have wanted to write a column, in the spirit of St. Paul, on the spiritual lessons all of us can learn from the New England Patriots, but Sunday's extraordinary comeback victory against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51) finally pushed me over the edge. Without pretending that the team is full of canonized saints or giving general absolution for all of the methods they've employed in the past to gain a competitive edge, there are so many things about the Church and the spiritual life we can learn by analogy from the Pats' sustained excellence, and it would be a shame for us to waste such a timely athletic allegory.
In honor of the 11 players on the field at any given time, let's mention 11 lessons.
First, teamwork. The Patriots win championships because all parts of the organization -- offense, defense, special teams, coaching, trainers, doctors, personnel directors, video staff, owners -- all "do their job." St. Paul's analogy about the Church as a Body in which eyes, hands, and feet all do their part finds in their cohesion a powerful illustration (1 Cor 12:14-31).
Second, preparation. The Patriots win championships not just by how they excel on Sundays but by how hard they work throughout the rest of the week, in the gym, on the practice field and in study to get ready. Imagine what would happen if clergy and faithful prepared just as hard for Sunday?
Third, coaching. Bill Belichick's ability to coach both his assistant coaches and his players not just in gridiron Xs and Os and "situational football" but also to get them to buy into team rather than selfish goals is what most sets him apart from his peers. The Patriots are similarly superb in making in-game adjustments. Those are three skill sets that would benefit all who coach God's team.
Fourth, shared championship drive. The Pats know what they want and everything is geared toward achieving that goal. Christians similarly ought to push each other toward obtaining everlasting victory with Christ.
Fifth, "next man up." The players are alert and ready to step up to play well when others in front of them go down. The transmission of the Gospel likewise needs people just as ready to step in as the next generation of priests, religious, catechists, salt, light and leaven.
Sixth, refusing to make excuses. It would be easy for the Patriots to dwell on draconian Deflategate punishments, blown calls by officiating crews, injuries, hatred by envious fans of other teams and other vicissitudes, but rather, they move on, focusing on what they have, rather than what they don't. Jesus prepared us for similar opposition (Mt 24:9-10) so that we might have similar positive resolve.
Seventh, "mental toughness." When trailing, even down 25, the Pats don't quit. They have a "six-second rule" to dwell on a previous play before they focus on what they have to do next. This gives an illustration of the Biblical virtues of makrothumia and hypomone (Gal 5:22; Heb 10:36), pointing to steadfast endurance.
Eighth, reviewing their performance. Even when the Pats win a blowout, they study minutely the game film to determine what went well and what didn't, in order to learn, correct and strengthen. That's what every Church institution should do regularly and every Christian do daily in a general nightly examination.
Ninth, ruthlessly remedying mistakes. When the Pats aren't getting the job done, they make the necessary adjustments: changing schemes, replacing players, doing whatever it takes. Jesus called us to be just as brutal in "plucking out" eyes and "chopping off" hands if they're leading us to spiritual defeat (Mt 5:29-30).
Tenth, studying their opponents. The Patriots are famous for taking away their opponents' greatest strength and game-planning against their opponents' weaknesses. The Church would do well to strategize just as effectively in terms of apologetics, prayer and, when the circumstances warrant, political catalysis when others organize to try to oppose the Gospel, the religious freedom and other rights of the Church, or human dignity.
Eleventh, discipline in speech. Bill Belichick's press conferences, while annoying for sports journalists, are an art form of vapid clichés. He refuses to say anything that could hurt his team, by giving opponents any tactical information or poster board material they could use against them. In an age of rampant lack of discretion, Pats' players have all learned this art. As St. James says, "If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue..., this man's religion is vain" (1:26). Minimally, such discipline is a corrective against gossip.
Just as the other 31 NFL teams are now seeking to learn from the Pats what it takes to succeed on the field, so it behooves Christians to learn from them these winning virtues for off the field, to practice them and help their "teammates" to live them, too.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
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