The Game of Church

Over 150 years ago, Milton Bradley introduced Life as a board game, originally titled The Checkered Game of Life.  From board games to video games to sports games, the metaphors for life are aplenty.  On Sunday, one team will proudly hoist the Lombardi Trophy.  Vince Lombardi, famed coach of the first Super Bowl champs, once said: “Football is like life…the difference between success and failure is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of will.”

Our challenge, then, is to have the will to succeed.  For Believers that means to embrace the will of God so that it brings us victory.  Saint Paul used sports metaphors in the earliest of Christian writings, from boxing to track; he noted that, like athletes, Followers of Jesus must practice daily, sacrifice, train hard, and respect opponents.  He saw the world as a stadium and the crown of victory beyond the finish line as our final goal beyond the heavenly shore.

Like a game, life has rules that we’ve got to play by—if we don’t, we will suffer penalties.  The National Football League Rule Book is almost as long and detailed as the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law.  We’ve seen a lot of fans defect from football in recent years but not nearly as many as parishioners who defected from the church.  Our own diocese has lost over 40,000 members in the past four decades and, instead of talking about a priest shortage, we now speak about a shortage of Catholics.  Officials in the church are appointed for life, unlike those in the NFL, and have been known to be quick, on occasion, to throw flags and enforce penalties.  I suppose I’ve gotten a few—like for being off-sides or in a neutral zone when out of sync with the play; or I’ve gotten benched when I know the game plan was bad—and I can’t give it my all.  On the field, officials settle penalties rather quickly: huddle if they have to, review the monitor if permitted, call New York if they can’t decide.  What it takes them to review in about twelve seconds, in the church it usually takes between twelve years or twelve hundred, especially if they need to huddle or call Rome.

Of course, the church is in a horrible place now.  It’s embarrassing that many players have been ejected for very severe penalties: illegal use of hands or intent to hurt or injure someone—and physical or sexual abuse has landed many clerics and football players in jails.  Though they should never have been allowed to play, should never have been ordained, Christ teaches us that there is always room for forgiveness and redemption in this game of life.  It’s hard to accept, even tough to talk about, but it is at the base of Christ’s mission.  Perhaps even worse are all the no-calls, all the years when penalties should have been assessed, but church officials ignored the flagrant wrong-doings.  We have to clothe ourselves in the will of God much like we suit up for a game.  We must go back in and do better next time, next season, the next opportunity we are given.

Bill Belichick is, in some ways, the modern Vince Lombardi, appearing in his twelfth Super Bowl on Sunday.  He is famous for telling players: “Do your job!”  If each person does what s/he is here to do, winning will become the norm as it is in his world.  But like the Monday Night Countdown crew or ESPN analysts with their “C’mon Man!” or “You Had One Job!” we can all do better and Belichick, like Lombardi did, expects the best.  But as Saint Paul knew better than anyone, we all mess up and deserve to have the penalty flag thrown in our direction at one time or another; yet he also wanted us to understand that we can rebound and find victory, just as he did—by putting on the will of Christ and doing our job.

Hang in there in the game of life—also hang in there with the church, if you can.  You will find success with a will for victory, a little luck, and the grace of God to guide you over the goal line into glory.