by Father Mark Goldasich
Picture the Pearly Gates, guarded by an attentive St. Peter. Standing just outside those gates are yours truly and Bill Self, head basketball coach at the University of Kansas.
Bill and I are chatting while St. Peter peruses the Book of Life. Suddenly, he
clears his throat and announces, “Bill, please come right on in to the kingdom of heaven!”
I’m shocked and say to St. Peter, “Uh, maybe you didn’t recognize me, but I’m Mark Goldasich and I’ve served as a priest my whole life. Being a longtime employee of the Lord, I’m a little bit confused as to why Coach Self gets to go into heaven first.”
St. Peter smiles and gently explains, “Mark, I know who you are, but let’s be honest here, OK? On Sundays when you preached, people slept. But whenever those Jayhawks set foot on the court, people prayed!”
Anyone who marched with KU through this year’s March-plus Madness knows exactly what St. Peter is talking about!
I’m happy for and proud of my neighbors to the south for winning the national championship. But maybe the Hawks need to be commended for something more than their athletic prowess. Perhaps they’ve also taught us some valuable faith and life lessons along the way.
First, they exemplify what amazing feats can be accomplished with teamwork. Working together — unselfishly — toward a common goal generates powerful momentum. In different situations, different people stepped forward and did what needed to be done to be successful.
Secondly, the team drew inspiration from tradition. In his pre-game comments, Coach Self reminded his players of Kansas’ storied basketball tradition. He paraded out the names of Naismith, Allen, Chamberlain, Brown, Williams, etc., and invited his squad to become a part of that history.
Thirdly, at least one person was literally relying on the strength of the Scriptures during the championship game. That person was Ronnie Chalmers, the director of KU’s basketball operations and father of Mario (whose historic three-pointer with just seconds to go sent the game into overtime and led to an eventual Kansas victory).
According to Luke Winn in “The Tourney Blog” on Sports Illustrated’s Web site, the elder Chalmers had two verses of Scripture written on a small scrap of white paper in the left breast pocket of his suit. On one side was Ps 46:1 — “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress”; on the other was verse 10 from that same psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God.” These verses proved to be a powerful source of comfort, particularly as the game wound down.
Lastly, significant events draw people together. No doubt Memphis fans gathered to console one another; KU fans, some 40,000 strong, surged onto Mass Ave. in Lawrence after the championship game to celebrate their joy (and relief).
Back in 1995, Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam wrote an article entitled “Bowling Alone,” which he later expanded into a book. In it, he documented and lamented our country’s deteriorating social networking.
Putnam wrote: “Television, two- career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values — these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.”
There are plenty of studies that support Putnam’s conclusions — from the decline in regular Mass attendance to fewer people voting to more folks bowling alone rather than in leagues. Maybe, just maybe though, things like KU’s national basketball crown and its larger life lessons give us reason to hope that things are changing for the better.
It’s no accident that the church requires Catholics to get together once a week for Mass. Simply put, we need one another. Our gathering is a chance to hear what God asks of us through the Scriptures, to clarify our common goal of transforming the world, and to pledge our unique gifts to advancing that goal. It’s also an opportunity to plug into our storied tradition, to hear about our ancestors in faith and even to be inspired to great things by them.
And, maybe most importantly, it’s a reminder that the “crown” that we’re working for is a heavenly one that won’t be up for grabs next year.