By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

ASTON (CNS) – Rachael Sokolovish is a member of Neumann University’s conference-champion volleyball team, and the 22-year-old Catholic from Media believes much of the squad’s success belongs to the persistent prayers of Franciscan Sister Marie Therese Carr, the chaplain assigned to her lineup.

“I’ll be getting ready to go out onto that court, and I’m stressing out, and then I’ll see Sister, cheering us on … and all of my anxiety just leaves my body,” Sokolovish said.

“For me, it’s a way to take my mind off of the game, and to trust my skills and my instincts,” she said. “I think having our chaplain as part of our team unifies us.”

Recently granted university status, Neumann deliberately combines Catholicism and athletics on each of its 17 spanision III teams, providing every one with its own chaplain.

The university has had volunteer chaplains assigned to its sports teams since 1997 – mostly laypeople with a few nuns. It’s a tradition that has lifted team morale and the spirituality of the student athletes, said Edward T. Hastings, director of Neumann’s Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development, which runs the team chaplain program.

Though some other Catholic colleges have one or two chaplains assigned to all athletics, Neumann is rare because few schools have a chaplain specifically assigned to each team on campus, according to a 2006 survey of Catholic institutions of higher education, conducted by Neumann’s Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development.

“It’s been really important for us to have our chaplain with our team,” said Lincoln Schrock, 24, a Catholic communications major from Fort Wayne, Ind., who played both men’s ice hockey and baseball for Neumann. “The chaplains are more than cheerleaders for the team, and they are also more than spiritual guides. They are there for us in a way that our coaches can’t be.”

While the coach is busy dealing with performance and strategizing, the chaplain is there to boost the spirits of the students, and to be a sounding board in times of trouble, said Stephanie Taylor, 33, a program coordinator for the Neumann institute and a chaplain for the women’s tennis and women’s lacrosse teams.

“Some things you may not feel comfortable talking to the coach or other teammates about,” Schrock said. “Our chaplain gives us an outlet.”

Franciscan Sister Linda DeCero, 60, who is chaplain of the men’s baseball team, organizes a team prayer and evening reflections to give the athletes a peaceful moment to focus on their goals.

Schrock recalled the beginning of one baseball season when his team was struggling, and then noticed a winning streak after the squad began holding regular evening reflections.

“It really turned things around for us,” he said. “When you’re in tune with your teammates on that level, I think you want to go that extra inch for them.”

When Bridget Meekes began playing field hockey and women’s lacrosse for Neumann two years ago, the 20-year-old nursing student expected that she would become a better athlete. The Drexel Hill resident didn’t realize her sports experience was going to make her a more committed Catholic.

“It’s true that our chaplain’s spiritual guidance has helped us play better because it lets us know there is something bigger than us,” Meekes said. “But, it’s also enabled me to connect with my religion in a much deeper way, and in a more personal way. It all fits together now.”

“This whole program reminds us all that everything we are doing in life is through God,” said Joe Glass, coordinator of mentoring for Neumann’s Academic Resource Center. “Our home, our school, our job and our sports all get fragmented. But, when we come together in a spiritual way, we come to realize it’s all sacred space, no matter what we’re doing.”