Sports and Life…and Eternal Life



This week we would like to share a column written by one of our Diocesan Directors of Sports Ministry, Jim Gontis, of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

Jim is leading the charge helping all seven of their high schools integrate the SportsLeader program into their teams.

Let's continue to be more intentional and strategic to evangelize through sports.

Virtue = Strength, 

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Harrisburg Diocese SportsLeader Rosary Rally with Bishop Gainer


Vox Clamantis – Monthly Column 
By Jim Gontis 
For January 20 Issue of The Catholic Witness 
Diocesan paper Diocese of Harrisburg, PA

Sports and Life…and Eternal Life

Have you ever wondered why sports evoke such strong emotions and reactions in people?

Why do former athletes so often recall in vivid detail memories of contests that happened years, sometimes decades ago? I think it is because our sporting victories and defeats reach into our souls on a deep level. St. Paul uses athletic struggle as a metaphor for the struggle for eternal glory: “Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” [1 Corinthians 9:25]

Soon we will be entering into the end-of-season tournaments in winter sports, basketball, wrestling, etc. A very small number of champions will be crowned, but there will be many more whose athletic seasons will not end in victory, let alone championships. Some will experience heartbreak as parents sit white-knuckled trying to contain their own emotions.

When my brother, Steve, was a sophomore in high school and I a senior, we were both wrestling in the state tournament for our high school team. We were both among the favorites to win individual state titles. And our team had won everything that year, every dual meet and every tournament by a sizeable margin. We were strongly favored to win the state title. Long story short, I lost in the first round 5-3 at the state tournament to an opponent that I had beaten 7-0 in a district meet just several weeks earlier. I was crushed. I went into the hallway outside of the arena and sobbed in my Dad’s arms for at least 30 minutes. While I came back and won my next five matches to place 3rd, I was still inconsolable. I’d like to say that time heals all wounds, but that is not always the case in this world. Thirty-two years later, it is still a painful memory.

My brother’s loss was even worse. He lost in the state finals with 0, count them, zero seconds left on the clock….on a highly questionable referee’s call, to put it charitably. Oh, and due in no small part to Steve’s and my losses, we lost the team title by one and a half points.

Several years ago, my brother and his family were visiting from out west. When, at a family picnic, I broached the topic with Steve over some hamburgers and baked beans, my brother, lifted his hand with a stop gesture, saying, “I can’t talk about it, Jim, I still can’t talk about it.” I understood. My brother has a beautiful family, is an accomplished man, a highly respected lawyer (now a judge), and a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He is admired by family, friends, and colleagues. But this memory, he still couldn’t talk about. Truth be told, I still didn’t feel much like talking about it either. We dropped it and played catch.

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Bishop Gainer interview amidst SportsLeader Rosary Rally footage.


Despite the disappointments, as well as victories, sports bonded my brother and me for as long as I can remember. We still call each other and our Dad each week to talk family, religion, and politics, but sooner or later we talk about sports, about some team or individual we have coached or about our favorite college or professional football or baseball teams….and sometimes about our own victories and defeats as well…at least some of them.

Was our competitiveness disproportionate? At times it was. Overall, I think sports made us better. Sports helped to steel us for life. Every life has victories and defeats, joys and tragedies, large and small. But French novelist and essayist, Leon Bloy, wrote there is but one lasting tragedy, and that is not to become a saint, i.e. not to get to heaven.

The long hours spent practicing, the wins and the losses, especially the losses, helped Steve and me to be, I hope, a bit more humble than we would otherwise have been. The strain and grit and gristle certainly helped us practice the virtues of fortitude, temperance, diligence, and perseverance.

Many people bemoan the fact that sports have become too big, too important in the current culture. I think there is some truth in that. But sports are not going away and they are, when kept in right proportion, good, and even occasions for holiness. A huge number of people, especially youth, play sports. So let’s use sports, which can be a good in themselves, to help people, especially our young people, to strive for the imperishable crown of glory with God and all the blessed forever in Heaven.

In the Diocese of Harrisburg this year, we have begun to implement an apostolate called SportsLeader in all the high schools of the diocese, as a way of helping to evangelize and build virtue through sports. You can find an article on the Diocese of Harrisburg’s implementation of SportsLeader at the following link: 
as well as pictures of some of our high school teams on their Twitter feed.

In my next column, I will explore more of the particular ways of evangelizing and promoting virtue through sports. In the meantime, if you have a chance, I encourage anyone at all interested in sports, especially all coaches at whatever level, to read the book, The Catholic Ideal: Exercise and Sports by Robert Feeney, published by Aquinas Press. There is good and practical food for thought in this book.

As I prepare to enter my 51st year and realize that I certainly have more years of this life in the rearview mirror than in front of me, our Lord’s admonition comes home more and more to me:

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.” Winning athletic contests and getting to Heaven, need not run counter to one another. We should strive for excellence in our pursuits, athletic or otherwise. God desires this.

Jim Gontis is the Director of Religious Education and recently appointed Director of Sports Ministry for the Diocese of Harrisburg.