A different team and a lasting championship

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One of the websites I visit a couple of times a day — as a former athlete and lifelong sports fan — is espn.com. There I get more than box scores, videos and articles on recent happenings in major sports, but often receive inspiration from the heroism of various teams and athletes, who overcome seemingly insurmountable life situations to make the pros, or mount incredible comebacks under pressure to win games or championships, or handle crushing defeats with grace and maturity. 

Sports have always been one of the great practice fields for human growth — for the cultivation of preparation, perseverance, leadership, teamwork, poise — and even in an age in which many star athletes fail to live in an exemplary way off the field, the character of those who strive to be role models can have a profoundly positive influence on others in various walks of life. 

That’s one reason why St. Paul regularly used sports — like running and boxing — in his preaching of the Gospel because what’s required to fight the good fight and finish the race in athletics is akin to the discipline needed to be faithful disciples. In my priestly work with men and kids and increasingly with women, sports have not only been a good conversation starter, but a school of Spiritual lessons. 

Even though I am routinely inspired by various articles and features on espn.com, I have never encountered anything as moving as the lead article and video on August 3. It was about cloistered nun, Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels, from the Poor Clare monastery in Alexandria, Va., who had just celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession. 

The article, entitled, “Whatever Happened to Villanova Basketball Star Shelly Pennefather? ‘So I Made This Deal With God,’” was part of a promo for a documentary entitled “A Long Embrace” airing that evening on the former Mary Michelle “Shelly” Pennefather. 

Shelly was the highest scorer in Villanova basketball history who, in the early 1990s, was on the verge of becoming the highest paid female basketball player in the world, but opted instead to embrace poverty, chastity and obedience far from the lights of the arena and cameras. 

Her story, and the way it impacted the life of her coach, her teammates, her former boyfriend and the author of the article, ESPN senior writer Elizabeth Merrill, was written with a reverence and awe that the best Catholic publications couldn’t surpass. And I was delighted to see my social media accounts light up for a few days by those posting links to it with enthusiastic and commendatory introductions. 

At the same time, however, there was in the article and in several of the people interviewed a combination of fascination and incomprehension at how someone like Shelly Pennefather, who was totally normal and thriving in the world, could make the choice not just to leave riches, fame and athletic glory behind to become a religious Sister but, to become an “incarcerated” cloistered nun perpetually behind the grille, as Sister Rose Marie jokingly describes her life. The truly radical nature of her vocation, it became clear as the article progressed, although respected, remained shocking even 28 years after she passed through the monastery portal. 

St. Therese of the Child Jesus once famously quipped that we cannot become saints by halves, by giving less than 100 percent. Yet we’re living in an age of compromises with the faith, in which we’ll give ourselves with total dedication to our families, to our careers, to sports and volunteer work, but moderate our commitment to the Lord lest we be “fanatical” about it. Even though Jesus called us to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, most are satisfied with giving Him only a percentage. We can easily relate to the decision made by the Rich Young Man, who after Jesus told him that to have it all he needed to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and then come follow Him, walked away because he didn’t have the strength to choose Jesus over all his stuff. 

In the midst of a materialist, hedonist and autonomous age, the radical nature of the religious life, uniting oneself to the poor, chaste and obedient Jesus as one’s true wealth, love and freedom, is an extraordinary sign of contradiction. Even more so is the cloistered life like that adopted by Sister Rose Marie — voluntarily cutting herself off both from the things to which so many of us are addicted, like televisions, computers, cell phones, and the culture of the instantaneous, as well as from some of the most beautiful and meaningful things in life, like contact with family and friends any time we want. 

But the choice she has made is a modern illustration of Jesus’ parables of the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price (Mt 13:44-46). There are certain things worth joyfully selling all one has to obtain. The choice cloistered nuns make is a bold proclamation that God is greater than all other great gifts and realities in our life. It’s a prophetic declaration that God’s love is enough to satisfy the desires He has placed in the human heart. It’s a witness that the most important thing we need to do in life is to love God back. 

In a sixth grade class, when Shelly was asked what she was hoping to be when she grew up, she replied forthrightly, “I’m going to be a saint!” At first her classmates laughed, thinking that their humorous classmate was just trying to be witty. She was serious. To desire the end is to choose the means. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that all one needs to do to become a saint is to will it — but to will it with all one’s heart. And Sister Rose Marie has willed it with the same type of focus, determination and perseverance with which Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have willed to win Super Bowls. 

That decision was nourished by her understanding of the Eucharist. As a young woman, she was struck by Jesus’ words, “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood remains in Me and I in him” (Jn 6:56), and she grasped that she wanted to live her life centered on Christ. She began to attend daily Mass at Villanova and then in Japan where she played pro ball. And her hunger only grew. Her life has become a commentary on the words Jesus said immediately after in His Eucharistic discourse in the Synagogue of Capernaum, “Just as the Father Who has life sent Me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on Me will have life because of Me” (Jn 6:57). 

Her life has also become a commentary on Jesus’ words of consecration, as she has given her life together with Jesus for others. We get a glimpse of how much fruit her religious life has borne in various people in the video. Through letters and occasional visits to the monastery, she has counseled her former coach, Villanova teammates and family members through troubled home situations, child raising sagas, physical sufferings, the death of loved ones, major life choices. And she has prayed for them and the world. Many of her teammates remarked that she and her fellow Poor Clares, rather than being oblivious to the types of things in the world, are actually very well informed on major worldly events, because their vocation is to pray for those in the world, like Moses on the mountain as the battle was waging in the plain (Ex 17:11). They continue to pray for persons and outcomes long after the petitioners have forgotten having made the request. 

Much was made early in the article and documentary about her impressive feats on the court: 96-0 in high school; 2,408 points for Villanova, in the era before three-pointers; three-time All-America and Big East Player of the Year; and 1987 Wade Trophy as Female College Player of the Year. 

When the General Judgment takes place, those achievements will all seem very insignificant compared to those she is now accomplishing with a different team and a different coach in monastic enclosure. She and they are praying for all of us to compete with them for an imperishable championship as we seek with Jesus to share His victory. 

Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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