Sports, spirituality collide over Easter weekend for Catholic schools in Final Four


This week is one of the most sacred for Catholics, starting with Holy Thursday and running through Easter Sunday.

Villanova's Rev. Rob Hagan swings around the net after cutting the last string after their win over Texas Tech in an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional final, Sunday, March 25, 2018, in Boston. Villanova won 71-59 to advance to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

But it’s also the weekend that Villanova University, an Augustinian Catholic school, is scheduled to make a run for its second national basketball championship in three years. What’s more, another school in the Final Four, Loyola University Chicago, also is Catholic.

Though not unprecedented, it’s the first time in decades that both the Final Four tournament has fallen over Easter weekend and Catholic schools were competing.

Notre Dame fell to Duke in the semifinal on the Saturday before Easter in 1978. (In 1985, when three of the four universities were Catholic — Villanova, St. John’s and Georgetown — and Villanova won the championship, the competition was the weekend before Easter.

“In an ideal world, they should be home with families and free to go to church if they are church-going people,” said the Rev. Frank Berna, director of graduate programs in theology and ministry at La Salle University. “But it’s not an ideal world. The NCAA has all kinds of teams, all kinds of people, all kinds of schools. I think the days of Eric Liddell not running on a Sunday, those days are gone.”

Liddell was the Olympic champion who refused to run on the Sabbath in the 1924 games and whose story was told in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

"Power for good:" Both Berna and other experts note the strong connection between spirituality and sports and say having the two collide this weekend isn’t so awful.

Berna teaches an undergraduate class, “Sports and Spirituality,” which delves into the correlation between sports, religious activity and spirituality. The Vatican in 2016 hosted a conference, “Sport at the Service of Humanity,” exploring “the power for good that these two mediums could deliver in partnership with one another.”

Athletes working together to achieve a goal and become better has a lot in common with the “transformative power” of God’s love that Easter illustrates, said James F. Caccamo, associate professor and chair of the department of theology and religious studies at St. Joseph’s University.

“In some ways that seems no different than sports at its best,” said Caccamo, who got his master’s and doctorate at Loyola. “You look at what people learn from sports. Those kinds of things stay with you.”

Not unfamiliar territory: Villanova has played basketball during the high holy days before, though not in the Final Four. The Wildcats, which won the national championship in 2016, competed in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight over the Easter holidays that year.

“This is not unfamiliar territory,” said the Rev. Rob Hagan, chaplain for the Villanova basketball team.

Like that time, Villanova this weekend is planning to hold a mass for players, staff, students and fans on Easter Sunday in San Antonio, followed by a brunch. The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova president, is expected to preside. The university also is planning a Good Friday Service at its hotel, the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk.

“We’re accustomed to celebrating masses on the road,” said Hagan, who will travel with the team to San Antonio on Wednesday.

More than 1,000 alumni, students and other supporters — all part of “Nova Nation” —showed up for a Mass in Houston in 2016 on Sunday, the day after Villanova won the semifinal and a day before the championship game, Hagan said.

“It wasn’t Easter, but it was Sunday,” he said.

The Wildcats are scheduled to play Kansas on Saturday night, beginning at 8:49 p.m. Four  hours before every game, the team has a meal, and just before that, Hagan offers a spiritual message and prayer. Then later, in the locker room, before the start of every game, before Coach Jay Wright launches into play strategies, Father Hagan leads the team in prayer again — not to win, but to offer thanks for the opportunity to compete and do their best.

Another prayer follows at the end of the game, also one of thanks, whether the team has won or lost.

The team already has been taking lessons from Lent, a time of sacrifice and preparation for a greater good, the priest said.

“Now, it’s culminating in this Holy Week and the season of Easter, which is a time of renewal and new beginnings and overcoming,” he said. “So we’ll certainly look to …take that spirit into everything we do, even the game that we play.”

Multi-denominational team: Not all of the players are Catholic. The team is multi-denominational, he said. Services aren’t forced on players, but all are encouraged to develop their spirituality, he said.

“We meet them wherever they are,” he said.

Back on Villanova’s campus, there are no watch parties scheduled for Saturday night. The campus is closed for Easter break through Monday. But if the Wildcats win Saturday, there will be a watch party Monday night at the Connelly Center on campus.

Donohue, Villanova president, said he wishes the NCAA would have looked at the calendar and realized it wasn’t a good weekend. He noted that Passover also begins Friday.

“But they never do that,” he said.

The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment.

Donohue said Villanova will make the best of it.

“We’re looking at it as the Villanova family is going to San Antonio to celebrate the basketball team and the most sacred time on the Christian calendar,” he said. “People understand these things happen.”