Sport and War


Interview with Fr. Michael McMahon, SSPX

The Angelus: Fr. McMahon, would you please explain for us the reason for the importance given to sports and games at La Salette.

Fr. McMahon: Really, the importance or emphasis on sports at La Salette Academy is the importance or emphasis placed there by the great philosophers and theologians, Catholic educators and the Magisterium of the Church. Pope Pius XII wrote in 1945: “Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration and steels the will to endurance.” The proper subject of formation is the whole man as created by God and perfected in Our Lord Jesus Christ. The formation must be ordered and balanced, taking into account the supernatural life of Faith and Grace as well as the human nature it is meant to perfect. Man, as we know, is composed of body and soul, therefore in the process of proper formation, both the body and the soul must be taken into account. While there is a hierarchy and the soul is certainly more important, the body remains an essential component in the formational equation. As the great St. Francis of Assisi said, “Brother Ass must also be brought into subjection.”

The Angelus: Are you saying that, just as the soul needs its spiritual nourishment, “Brother Ass” needs sport?

Fr. McMahon: Well! At La Salette we seek to form our boys on the supernatural, rational, and the physical levels. Physical education cannot be neglected, and for young men in their teenage years should be rigorous and demanding. Besides strenuous exercises of running, jumping, lifting, pulling and pushing, there is also an important place for competitive sports both on the intramural and interscholastic levels. Plato says in his Republic, that every child should have athletic experience which he called “gymnastics.” This renowned ancient philosopher felt that a man was incapable of reasoning correctly or engaging in the higher functions of the soul unless he had first toughened his spirit by athletic participation. Again, Pius XII: “Sport rightly understood is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth. It helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of its Creator.”

The Angelus: Can a boy grow up reasonably well without playing sports? How essential is it for his physical development?

Fr. McMahon: The important point to remember is the proper formation of the young man and, in this context, with respect to the physical level. In theory this can happen without sport, and in past centuries this end was fulfilled in different ways. In the vast majority of cases, in today’s world, often the best means at hand to attain that necessary end is in the context of a serious physical education program aided by competitive sports. With most families living in urban or suburban communities on less than an acre of land, the most challenging chore for a boy on a given day is likely to be making his bed, vacuuming a floor or doing the dishes with his sisters. Some venue for properly forming the body and subjecting it to the rational soul must be found.

The Angelus: Of course, traditionally only boys grew up to be warriors, and games for girls were of a different nature...

Fr. McMahon: The difference in the natures of men and women reasonably demands a difference in their formation. The roles of the sexes as intended by Almighty God necessitate this. As it says in Genesis: “Male and female He created them.” By common experience and observation… boys play war, girls play house. In his great encyclical on education, Pope Pius XI wrote:

“In keeping with the wonderful designs of the Creator, men and women are destined to complement each other in the family and in the society, precisely because of their differences, which therefore ought to be maintained and encouraged during their years of formation, with the necessary distinction and corresponding separation according to age and circumstances.”

The Angelus: I have read somewhere that children take play seriously and this prepares them for maturity, whereas adults who take games seriously turn into teenagers...

Fr. McMahon: This sounds like it could have been written by the prolific G. K. Chesterton. The professional sports climate of today engenders grown men wasting hours of precious time watching other grown men play children’s games, while often neglecting important spiritual and familial duties. In most cases we no longer have sport, but a circus or a soap opera which creates a culture and ambiance inimical to right reason and sane living. There are few things which make the blood curdle more than a grown man wearing a professional sports jersey with the name of another grown man across his back: Vicariously living in a fantasy world or playing in a fantasy league with his heroes of the gridiron or diamond (the only thing worse is when a man allows his wife or girlfriend to wear the name of another grown man across her back!!).

The Angelus: Why team sports? Why rugby and basketball? I am told that rugby is the game closest to battle-line warfare...

Fr. McMahon: Different sports teach different virtues, but the best in a school setting seem to be the team sports. Sports such as rugby or basketball lend themselves readily to the submission of individual talents and desires to cooperation and a real commitment to the common good, fostering and facilitating the goals of the team. Unity among students results when sacrificing together for a tangible goal against an external opponent. Properly directed this can foster a true esprit de corps. An experienced educator will use and guide this to the higher levels for more important intellectual and spiritual goals. Even among the dysfunctional it remains a last bastion where sacrifices are made for something bigger than oneself. Discipline, self-control, submission to objective rules, poise under pressure, perseverance, fortitude, are just some in the long list of virtues which sports can help foster and teach; natural virtues, which can be eventually placed at the service of the supernatural.

The Angelus: The old Integrity magazine wrote about some “viruses” affecting adults that are making inroads into teenage sports. The first is too much of the competitive spirit to the point of crushing the opponent. The other is “grandstanding”—showing off due to the spectator complex, which seems to destroy the purity of intention and total giving proper to teens.

Fr. McMahon: While physical education and competitive sports aim directly at the bodily formation of a young man, we can never lose sight of the fact that since he is a man both his intellect and will are necessarily engaged. As Pius XII said: “Sport rightly understood is an occupation of the whole man.” Ultimately it is the higher formation which is directed to man’s final end: honoring and serving Almighty God and thus attaining eternal salvation. This is of paramount importance. Virtue must be taught even on the playing field and especially on the playing field. There is no vacation from virtue, it cannot be checked at the goal line. The “viruses” or vices mentioned in the question of crushing an opponent or vainly grandstanding certainly can destroy the process of proper formation. However, like a teacher in the classroom, the coach on the court or in the field must himself be a man trained in virtue having before himself always the ultimate ends of Christian formation.

The Angelus: War is a matter of life and death, whereas games are not. Explain why it is important for the teenager to feel the pressure to win the ‘battle’ without losing his life...

Fr. McMahon: There is no way to adequately equate sports to warfare. As is often stated, “War is hell.” Not having the personal experience of battle I hesitate to make such a comparison. Sports and proper physical education can be remote preparations for such: for all branches of the military service require “boot camp” as a more proximate preparation for combat. Boot camp includes many of the physical and even the team-building exercises which can be found and utilized at a lower level in a proper P.E. or sports program. Our schools are not preparing boys for war in the military sense, but certainly in the ecclesia militans as a soldier of Christ. In other words we are preparing them for life, a Christian life in this valley of tears in constant combat with the world, the flesh and the devil.

The Angelus: Any last thoughts on the matter? 

Fr. McMahon: I would like to finish with a recent event where Divine Providence used our sports program for possibly the salvation of a soul. In 2007, our rugby team made a big splash by qualifying for the national tournament in Salt Lake City. After finishing 12th in the nation, the national Rugby Magazine wrote an excellent piece on the 53-student David that tangled evenly with a multitude of Goliaths. In Chicago, a man read that article and was not only intrigued but “prompted” to contact me in order to arrange a brief meeting since he soon planned on passing by the Academy. A scheduled half-hour tour and talk turned into a three-hour serious conversation, and a relationship was begun which may now have eternal ramifications. After 56 years away from the Sacraments and the practice of his Faith, this man attended our summer alumni retreat and made his confession, received Our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharistic and even Last Rights. The Hound of Heaven used the accomplishments of a tiny school on the rugby field in 2007, patiently waiting for seven years of prayers and penance to get him into the state of grace and onto the short path of salvation as he has terminal cancer and but months to live! Truly our ways are not God’s ways.

Fr. Michael McMahon is Headmaster of Notre Dame de La Salette Boys Academy, Olivet, Illinois.