VILLANOVA, Pa. (CNS) — Last October, the Vatican hosted a groundbreaking conference to explore the ways faith and sports could act together to spark positive social change, and encourage greater inclusivity, commitment and inspiration on a multicultural global stage.

This June, coaches, chaplains, campus ministers, university administrators and others from across the United States gathered at Villanova University to explore ways to make that vision concrete in the world of collegiate sports.

Approved by the Vatican and hosted by the university in collaboration with the Big East Conference (the NCCA Division I collegiate athletic league), “Sport at the Service of Humanity: A Regional Conference on Faith and Collegiate Sports” drew more than 100 attendees to Villanova June 7-8.


Participants represented 28 colleges, universities and other organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, according to a news release issued jointly by the Sport at the Service of Humanity conference, the Pontifical Council for Culture, Villanova University and the Big East Conference.

Val Ackerman, Big East Conference commissioner, who served as a delegate and planner for the 2016 Vatican conference, helped kick off the Villanova meeting. Nine of the 10 schools in the Big East are Catholic.

Her talk, which focused on how college athletic programs can develop student athletes as complete people, addressed the many dimensions of a student experience, including academics, community, athletics, and the importance of spiritual development.

“It’s almost daily that we see, hear about or experience directly the dark side of humanity: intolerance, division and disrespect. This conference reminds me of what can be done to bring out the best in people. How can we facilitate lives of hope and peace?” Ackerman said in a phone interview with Catholic News Service prior to the conference.

Keynote speaker Irish Bishop Paul Tighe, who is adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, suggested that sports had a strong tribal element, and that it sometimes fostered division.

His address was peppered with probing questions about the sometimes-competing values that can drive athletic competition, as he walked listeners through the challenges of creating an environment of inclusion and shaping a sports ethic informed by faith.


At the same time, he suggested that sports are “a universal language that speaks to people in different parts of the world. In a world that is ever more divided we need idioms … that speak to different people in different places.”

“How do we as Catholic institutions mirror the attitude of Jesus to those who come among us?” he asked. “How do we promote integrity when it’s often not about winning”?

Jesuit Father Pat Kelly, author, theologian and a professor at the Seattle University, delivered a talk that integrated the cross-disciplinary “flow theory” propounded by Hungarian researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, St. Ignatius of Loyola and American basketball coach Phil Jackson. Father Kelly suggested ways in which the “key influencers” in a student athlete’s life could play a positive role in their development.

“Hostility between academia and the athletic department may not be helpful,” said Father Kelly wryly. “But tension is OK.”

University administrators, who may sometimes view sports in terms of the external goods they can bring, can also attend to the human goods, he suggested.

“Are we ignoring issues of justice and poverty?” he asked in the question-and-answer session that followed. “We know that so many young people are not going to make it. As I’m in the classroom, I’m thinking of how to be of service to young people.”

“Can we get students to start reflecting on their lives. What do they want to be? What’s their mission to society?” Father Kelly asked.

Questions raised in small group breakout sessions and in questions addressed to the keynote speakers included how to help student athletes lead a balanced life, ways in which to integrate them more closely into the larger campus community, the importance of service, and how to forge relationships that may include learning opportunities for them.


While the principles that undergird the initiative are religious inspired, they aren’t explicitly religious, said Msgr. Melchor Sanchez de Toca Alameda, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who noted that the Vatican meeting was multifaith and multicultural.

His hope, he said, is that a small team created for the purpose will make progress in expanding the holistic view of collegiate athletics articulated by Ackerman. “Many here have complained that in athletic departments the athletes tend to be separated from the college community. It’s a sort of apartheid.”

The Vatican is interested in sports for many reasons, he said, from the theological — concern about the flourishing of the human person — to the practical.

Noting the problems of doping, violence and corruption that sometimes afflict organized sports, he said: “It’s in the interest of everyone that sports is clean. Religious communities can inspire the ethical strength and values that professional sports have lost sight of because they are too focused on business, performance and investments.”

“Religious communities like ours can provide values, wisdom and moral guidance,” he added. “Religious communities can help the world of sports, and the world of sport can help religious communities. It’s a matter of connecting spirituality to sport, not from the outside, not the icing on the cake, but from the inside.”

Other conference speakers included Villanova’s president, Augustinian Father Peter Donohue; Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; and Mark Jackson, Villanova’s director of athletics.

A group that will focus on how to integrate six principles — joy, compassion, respect, enlightenment, love and balance — established by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture into collegiate sports is currently in the planning stages, according to leaders of the Sport at the Service of Humanity conference leadership.

Additional programs on the intersection of faith and sports are planned for this fall.