Columnists Life will be victorious

Sports wins are wonderful, but ultimately fleeting

Joseph F. Naumann is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

As many are aware, I never knew my father. He died when my mother was three months pregnant with me. My mother always made sure that my brother and I were well acquainted with his virtues and passions.

One of his passions was baseball. After graduating from high school, he played professional baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system. My father attended a public high school. In the 1930s in St. Louis, even in the public schools, Latin was one of the language requirements.

The Cardinals, in the 1920s through the early 1930s, had some great baseball teams that became popularly known as the Gas House Gang! The team got the nickname from their shabby appearance and rough playing tactics. According to Wikipedia, the term “Gas House” referred to factories that turned coal into gas for heating and lighting purposes. The plants were noted for their foul smell and were typically located near railroad yards in the poorest neighborhoods in cities.

In 1934, my father’s senior year of high school, the Cardinals were in the World Series with the Detroit Tigers. My father’s Latin teacher told her class that if any of her students skipped school to go to the World Series, she would fail them, no matter how well they performed academically.

My father did not believe her and went to one of the World Series games. The teacher was true to her word and failed my father. Much to my grandmother’s chagrin, my father had to go an extra semester in high school before beginning his professional baseball career.

My father gave up his baseball ambitions in the late 1930s, shortly before World War II. He was drafted into the Army and served in combat in the Pacific Theater. When he returned from the war, he played amateur baseball. In 1997, almost 50 years after his death, my father was inducted into the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

I was reminded of this bit of family history when posed with the question regarding the possibility of closing our schools on Ash Wednesday in order to allow students to participate in the parade and rally honoring the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs. What a blessing the Chiefs are to the Kansas City community, playing in four Super Bowls in the past five years and winning three times!

This year’s Chiefs were particularly inspiring. They lacked the dominant offense that crushed many opponents in the past. Instead, the 2023-24 version of the Chiefs had a sterling defense that kept games close until the offense could get untracked. Despite numerous adversities, they never gave up and found new ways to win games.

There are many devout Christians on the team. I love Patrick Mahomes’ custom of kneeling in prayer before the start of the game. I am grateful that he always gives honor to God for giving him and his teammates the physical and mental talents to be successful on the field. It is not only Mahomes, but many of the Chiefs’ players who give similar honor and praise to God for their talents and the many ways in which God has blessed them. Personally, I particularly admire Harrison Butker, who, besides being a talented placekicker, is a very devout Catholic.

There are very many virtues that team sports help to develop. To succeed on the field or court, athletes have to be good stewards of their bodies, keeping themselves healthy and fit in order to excel on the field of play. Athletes have to discipline and push themselves to grow stronger and improve their abilities.

Team sports, in particular, foster an unselfish spirit within players. Great teams have talented players who are willing to sacrifice themselves and personal achievement for the good of their team. Team sports provide the environment to develop deep and enduring friendships. With all of the preceding in mind, why not close school for a day to celebrate the Chiefs’ accomplishments?

I doubt that civic officials or the Chiefs’ leadership were aware that they scheduled the victory parade and rally on Ash Wednesday. After all, many Chiefs’ fans are not Christian and many Christian churches do not even commemorate Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday does not occur on the same day of the calendar each year, but changes based on the date of Easter. No doubt, it is incredibly complex to find a date and time that accommodates the calendars of all the key parties. 

For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is not just another day. It begins officially the important season of Lent – 40 days of prayer and fasting to prepare us for the solemnity of Easter, the day that commemorates Our Lord’s victory over sin and death.

Ash Wednesday is one of only two days in the annual liturgical calendar that the church requires all Catholics to fast and abstain from meat.  The other day is Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season that prepares us on Easter to renew the gift of our own baptism — the sacrament through which we received the very life of Jesus and were given an eternal destiny to live with God and his saints forever.

The signing of the forehead with ashes, created from the burnt palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday, remind us that everything in this world is temporary and passing away. The ashes are a sober testimony to the reality of death and the fleeting nature of fame and fortune. At the same time, the black cross on our forehead is a symbol of the depth of God’s love for us revealed on Calvary.

This Ash Wednesday provided us a unique opportunity to give witness to what is most important and enduring. Super Bowl championships are rare and wonderful, but, in the end, they cannot save us from the enslavement of sin or the apparent finality of death. Only Jesus can liberate us from these twin curses.

On Ash Wednesday, I invited all of our Catholic school students to do what Patrick Mahomes declared — to give all honor and glory to God, the one from whom all blessings flow. Jesus has won the ultimate victory, more important than any Super Bowl. In our prayer, we should also give thanks for the Chiefs and all the joy and pleasure they have brought to our community.

During Lent, I also encourage you to pray for the Chiefs players, that they are protected from the temptation to place their hope in worldly fame and fortune that results from success on the football field. May they remember always to give honor, glory and praise to God! If they do, I would not be surprised if they are playing in next year’s Super Bowl!

Before reading this column, did you know that the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1934 World Series? The fame of sports is fleeting, but the love of God endures!

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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