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We are primed for another season as the defending AFC North Champions, which makes this a natural moment to review the perennially confusing question: can we really “pray for a Bengals win?”

As the Cincinnati Bengals Catholic Chaplain, my answer regarding prayers for sports teams is “that depends on your intention!” If your desired outcome is an online wager or Fantasy Football standing, no, that’s not cool. If it’s for something larger, however, involving the vocation and dignity of the players or the celebration of the common good, then chances are it’s a solidly Catholic prayer.

Recall that both athletes and the prayers of those who cheer for them are imaged positively and consistently in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition. “Run with endurance the race set before you,” teaches St. Paul. “Remember you are God’s athlete,” said St. Ignatius of Antioch. We don’t pray for a win per se, but we do pray that God will grace the athletes with the skill to play generously and well; to give the best of themselves to the team, their opponents, and the fans, and to achieve their heart’s desire—which, of course, is often to win.

St. John Paul the Great famously taught that the human body “speaks a language.” My experience of elite football players and coaches is that they intuitively get this reality. They know they are a unity of both body and soul. They get that athletic competition is a God-given pathway for them to honor and offer up their unique talents for the common good.

St. Thomas Aquinas famously asked in the Summa Theologica, “Can there be a virtue about games?” His answer: “Yes.” For St. Thomas, virtue is associated with balance in life, so working or studying all the time is unbalanced. There is a God-given need for sabbath, play and recreation to “reset” a fully human life.

This “play ethic” was the central influence on late medieval Catholic preaching about games and sports. It led early Jesuits to respond to Calvinist distortions about the human person, whereby the latter eliminated “feast days” when students historically played games and sports. Authentic education, the Jesuits taught, should provide time in the school day for play and sport. Later Catholics vigorously embraced this spirituality, especially in the U.S.

Pope Francis is himself a famous sports fan, and he invites us to envision sports as a prime expression of the New Evangelization. The first major Vatican document about sports, “Giving the Best of Yourself,” quotes the Pope’s affirmation of this deeply biblical and Catholic vision of athletics as a worthy transmitter of Gospel values. In his address to members of the European Olympic Committee on November 23, 2013, the Pope essentially expressed that the bond between the Church and the world of sports is beautiful. Sports are a powerful instrument for the integral growth of the human person. To participate in sports is to reject every form of selfishness and isolation. It is an opportunity to encounter others. This is possible because the language of sports is universal; it transcends borders, race, religion and ideology; it can unite people, it fosters dialogue and acceptance. Sports are a very valuable resource!

So Bengals Nation Catholics, by all means, let’s enjoy these 16 (and hopefully more) games of the Bengals 2023 season, giving thanks to God that, whether we’re at Paul Brown Stadium or cheering from our homes, sports so clearly and passionately express what it means to be human, to celebrate together, and to enjoy a culture of encounter.

Father Thomas Wray is the Catholic Chaplain for the Cincinnati Bengals and Parochial Vicar for All Saints and St. Vincent Ferrer Churches in Cincinnati.

This article appeared in the September 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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