A journey of faith
September 17, 2018
A leap of faith to deal with divorce
September 17, 2018

Family and Sport

The triennial World Meeting of Families (WMOF) was held in Dublin, Ireland, August 21–26. The venue for the Pastoral Congress was the Royal Dublin Society. From August 22–24 presentations were made by speakers from around the world. Editor Raymond Syms, who attended the WMOF with his wife Tricia as part of the five-member contingent representing the Antilles Episcopal Conference, reports on another talk.

This ‘devil’ is now a Dominican. The mid-morning panel discussion August 23 was ‘Celebrating Family and Sport’ and Dominican priest Fr Phillip Mulryne seemed the main presenter. But the panellist to receive the biggest ovation was no athlete but a widowed mother of two whose husband was a popular Irish rugby player cum coach.

Offering some opening comments, moderator Irish Bishop Paul Tighe described sports as “a universal language”. The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture admitted to not being “all that good playing sports” but encouraged the playing of sports for the values it brings, the enjoyment, the discipline it instils, the teamwork it fosters, and the development of leadership. Most of all, “Sports can keep the family together across generations,” he remarked.

In his turn at the podium, Fr Mulryne said growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland when there was sectarian violence was difficult, and playing football was seen as “a way out to a better life”. His talent was spotted by a professional club scout and at the age of 14 he was signed up to a popular English Premier League club—Manchester United, aka the ‘Red Devils’.

Speaking to a three-quarter filled Hall 2, Fr Mulryne recalled then ‘ManU’ manager Alex Ferguson running the club “like a family”, and his teammates looked out for and mentored the younger players like himself. But he spent six years at Manchester, much of the time on the bench as “Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes” starred on the field.

He transferred to Norwich in 2000 and spent eight years there before returning home to retire. He explained that during his career he had “lost his Catholic faith” in the face of all the trappings of sporting fame and fortune. “I had things materially but there was no joy.” It was his sister who helped bring him back to his faith, and he eventually felt he had a calling. He was ordained to the priesthood July last year and is now a college chaplain.

Fr Mulryne said faith and sport were intertwined; there was “no contradiction”. Olive Foley brought out this point as she spoke, at times through tears, of her husband, Anthony Foley, who died two years ago of a heart attack in Paris, France, where his club was supposed to play a match. He was 42, “an idol to many, and idolised at home” by their two sons, now 11 and 8.

She spoke of how her faith, and with the support of the parish, club and wider sporting community helped her and her sons cope with the grief. “God has a plan and my faith means sticking with His plan.” She received sustained applause and a standing ovation from the mainly Irish audience.

The other panellists were Ronan O’Gara, another former Irish international rugby player, and Aidan O’Mahony, a five-time All Ireland winning Gaelic Athletic Association player for the county Kerry.

All the panellists agreed that sport was a powerful tool to encourage communication, particularly with young people.