Amid March Madness, chaplains offer spiritual support

Jesuit Fr. John Laurance, chaplain of the Marquette University men's basketball team, during a timeout at a recent game. Father Laurance is in his second year as team chaplain. (Marquette University/Maggie Bean)

Beginning Thursday, 68 college men’s basketball teams will compete in the NCAA tournament until the championship April 3.

This year, 12 Catholic colleges are in the “March Madness” tournament starting March 16: Creighton University, University of Dayton, Gonzaga University, Iona College, Marquette University, Mount St. Mary’s University, University of Notre Dame, Providence College, Seton Hall University, St. Mary’s College of California, Villanova University and Xavier University.

Several of these schools, such as Gonzaga and Notre Dame, have had successful tournament runs in recent years. Villanova won the championship last year.

One thing most of these Catholic teams have? A chaplain who serves to provide spiritual support for the student athletes.

In addition to teaching theology at Marquette, Jesuit Fr. John Laurance has been chaplain for two years for the men’s basketball team. He sits on the team’s bench and leads prayer before and after every game while wearing the clerical collar to reaffirm the university’s Jesuit tradition.

“Presence is a big thing,” Laurance said. “A majority of the players are not Catholic, but I’m sure they know I’d be there for them. It’s humbling and it does mean a lot to me. These young men are a really wonderful group of people.”

Chaplains from other teams expressed the same sentiment. Holy Cross Fr. Pete McCormick has been Notre Dame’s men’s basketball chaplain for six years. He makes sure he’s available for the players and builds a relationship with them.

For example, the team had to stay on campus this past Christmas break because basketball season had already started. Some of the players missed regular Mass in the chapel, so they asked McCormick to celebrate Mass with them on a Sunday evening.

“It was the only Mass I’ve ever been to where I was the shortest guy there, and I’m 6 foot 3,” McCormick said.

McCormick, who is also Notre Dame’s campus minister, said the team has a Mass before every game and before the start of the NCAA tournament.

“I think it’s important for a Catholic institution to give student athletes an opportunity to experience (Mass),” McCormick said. “Not all (athletes) are Catholic, but I introduce it at the beginning and say this Mass is the center of who we are as an institution. … It’s about giving them the faith to truly experience Notre Dame and grow into themselves a little bit. ... There’s a certain respect for each other that’s reciprocated.”

Augustinian Fr. Robert Hagan also celebrates a prayer service with Villanova’s men’s basketball team before every game, which entails reading a passage from scripture and taking intentions. He said everyone on the team participates in the prayer, even those who are not Catholic.

“We never pray to win the game, but we offer our minds and hearts to God so we can do our best,” Hagan said. “We discover God through friendship, and so the championships are not as important as the relationships that are built.”

Hagan said he tries to create an inclusive environment for everybody on the team so they feel welcome on and off the court, even after they graduate from Villanova.

“The beauty of being chaplain is often you might get a call 4-5 plus years later … ‘Can you help with my wedding?’ ‘Can you baptize my son?’ And there are wonderful moments where you see the community has grown and really never dies,” Hagan said.

Women’s basketball teams also benefit from having a chaplain. Jesuit Fr. Edward Mathie has been chaplain for Marquette’s women’s basketball team for 10 years. He attends every home game, but hasn’t been able to attend away games recently because he teaches a course on Ignatian spirituality three days a week. He can attend the first game of the women’s NCAA tournament March 18 in Coral Gables, Florida because Marquette is on spring break.

“I enjoy being with the coaches and these players,” Mathie said. “When (the players) come back after graduation, they come right over and say, ‘Hey, Fr. Eddie! It’s so good to see you!’ These women are very significant to me, and there’s a great relationship back and forth.”

Other Catholic women’s teams competing in this year’s NCAA tournament include Creighton, Dayton, DePaul University, Gonzaga and Notre Dame.

“It’s exciting. … We know we’ve got great talent — I have terrific expectations — but again all you can do is go forward with who you are and what things are,” Mathie said.

Not all chaplains are priests. Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is 97 years old and only five feet tall. ESPN reports that she has served as Loyola University Chicago’s men’s basketball team chaplain since 1994. She was inducted into Loyola’s sports hall of fame on Jan. 31. Schmidt leads the team and crowd in separate pregame prayers, always starting with the phrase, “Good and gracious God.”

All of the chaplains who spoke with NCR expressed their gratitude for being a part of these student athletes’ lives.

“These student athletes really become family and you look at them and treat them and love them as if a son or daughter, or niece or nephew, and you want what’s best for them,” Hagan said. “I’m very grateful for the role I have here.”

“When you see (these athletes) develop when they’ve given all their effort, you really bond with them,” Laurance said. “It’s so rewarding to watch that happen. … To see them come out with confidence and developing. … Yeah, this means a lot.”

[Shireen Korkzan is an NCR Bertelsen intern.]

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