by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
One of my favorite movies is “Chariots of Fire.”
This 1981 Academy Award-winning film depicts two athletes who competed in track for Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics. One was Harold Abrahams, who was the Jewish son of Lithuanian immigrants, and the other was Eric Liddell, the son of Scottish Christian missionaries. Both were outsiders in English society. Abrahams was motivated to compete to overcome anti-Semitism. Liddell ran as a means of glorifying God.
Eric Liddell was slated to represent England in the 100-meter race, but declined to run when the event was scheduled on Sunday. Despite pressure from the English Olympic Committee and the Prince of Wales, Liddell refused to break his observance of the Lord’s Day by competing in the race. One of Liddell’s teammates, who already had won an Olympic medal, allowed Liddell to take his place in the 400-meter race. Liddell won a gold medal, upsetting the favored American runners.
About two years ago, it was brought to my attention that the state high school wrestling competitions had become coed. Because there are not enough girls interested in the sport of wrestling to field a female team, the state requires that high school girls and boys compete against each other.
I suppose I should not be startled anymore by what our culture has come to consider not only normal, but progressive. It is incredible to me that the state not only permits teenage boys and girls to wrestle competitively, but boys are forced to forfeit the opportunity for a state championship if they fail to comply. It not only hurts the individual athlete, but it also handicaps the team, saddling them with an automatic loss for that particular match.
I discussed this matter thoroughly with our superintendent and consulted with my administrative team. Our high school staffs work hard to cultivate a proper respect for young women by our young men and vice versa. To me, it is incredulous that the state sanctions the intimate physical contact between males and females required in competitive wrestling. In any other context, such physical contact by a young man with a young woman would be considered assault.
I totally agree with the intent of the policy which I presume is to promote the equal dignity of men and women. Sadly, our culture confuses equality with both sexes doing everything the same. In the name of equality, our culture ignores the reality of physical as well as other differences between the sexes. True equality respects, honors and celebrates our differences. It actually undermines the dignity of women when our culture demands for women to deny their femininity to be considered equal to men. The equal dignity of men and women is not contingent on doing everything the same.
After praying and deliberating over this issue, I asked our superintendent to institute a policy for our Catholic high schools that boys would not wrestle girls, even if, as a consequence, they forfeited a match which denied them the opportunity for a state championship.
A couple weeks ago, I became aware that Stephen Tujague, a member of the St. James Academy wrestling team, who was ranked number one in his weight division, had drawn a female wrestler in an early round of the state competition. Stephen’s parents wrote to me and very respectfully asked that I reconsider our policy. They informed me of how hard Stephen had worked to excel as a wrestler and expressed what a profound disappointment it would be for Stephen not to be allowed to compete for the state championship. They also feared that it could affect his opportunity for college scholarships.
I met with Stephen and his parents. I reviewed with them again the rationale for our policy. Stephen expressed well and respectfully his viewpoint. I told him that I felt terrible about his being denied the opportunity to win the state tournament. I shared with Stephen my conviction that our Catholic schools should hold students to a higher standard rather than simply conform to the culture. I reminded Stephen that sometimes we have to make heroic sacrifices for our Catholic faith.
I was impressed by Stephen’s response. While, understandably, he still wished that he would have the opportunity to win the state wrestling title, Stephen agreed that our faith does hold us to a higher standard. He said that he always hoped that he would have the strength to sacrifice in order to be a witness for his faith. Even though it was crushing the dream he had worked so hard to achieve, Stephen was willing to offer this sacrifice to God and hoped God would use it for good.
I prayed for Stephen in the days leading up to the tournament. I knew that I could not fully appreciate his disappointment from being eliminated from the state competition in this way. I prayed the Lord would bless his sacrifice and make it a grace for Stephen and for others.
After the state competition was finished, on his blog a wrestling coach from a public school expressed admiration for the manner in which Stephen handled himself in this very difficult situation. There was no denying Stephen’s disappointment at losing the opportunity to finish first in the state. After forfeiting this one match, he won five successive matches and finished third in the state. This coach respected the class with which Stephen conducted himself throughout the competition.
Stephen is blessed with some remarkable parents. Without their support, it would have been very difficult for Stephen to respond to this challenge as he did.
Some may disagree with my decision and the policy for our wrestlers. Yet, we can all be proud of Stephen Tujague and the way in which this young man represented our Catholic faith. In my mind, Stephen is a modern day Eric Liddell. Whatever college Stephen chooses to attend will not only gain a superb wrestler but, more importantly, a quite remarkable young man.
I see hundreds of young men and women like Stephen in our Catholic high schools, in our parish youth programs, working as camp counselors at Prairie Star Ranch, serving as Totus Tuus catechists, participating in our college campus ministry programs, serving as FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries, postulants in religious communities and seminarians. From what I experience in our young people, the future bodes well for the church!
After the Olympics, Eric Liddell became a Christian missionary in China. I can hardly wait to see what Stephen Tujague and many of his contemporaries will do in the service of God, the church and humanity. Thanks to them, our future is bright!