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SportsLeader Aims to Form Youth in Virtues

Interview With Director Andy Oreffice

ROME, NOV. 14, 2005 (Zenit) - Sports isn't just about winning games, but about learning how to live a virtuous life, says the director of SportsLeader.

Andy Oreffice was one of the participants in the first international seminar on sports organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The theme of the seminar, held Friday and Saturday, was "The World of Sports Today, Field of Christian Commitment."

In this interview with us, Oreffice speaks about the SportsLeader programs that seek to enhance the participants' faith and leadership journey -- facilitating a new world of sports.

Q: You've been participating in the seminar; tell us your impressions.

Oreffice: To tell you the truth, I feel like an ant amid giants. During this two-day seminar I was sitting alongside experts in the sports world, successful athletes and coaches from around the world, sports chaplains who have specialized in this ministry for decades, and so many other talented men and women.

The reflections and proposals showed the caliber of these apostles of the sports world.

It makes me proud to be Catholic, to see the Church so positively addressing sports, which has become so increasingly important in societies over the past decades.

Q: But ants don't get invited to fraternize with giants for no reason. Why were you invited to this seminar?

Oreffice: I was fortunate enough to be invited to this seminar because of my work as the director of SportsLeader, a new program that is working to evangelize the world of sports, as well as bring comprehensive virtue programs to all levels of sports.

This seminar, put on by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, is seeking to transmit the Catholic vision of sports throughout the world, so the organizers were looking for representatives from various countries, and we happened to be chosen.

This certainly is providential, because the theme of the seminar -- "The Christian mission in the field of sport today" -- corresponds with what SportsLeader seeks to achieve: evangelize the world of sports and through the world of sports.

Q: Why evangelize the world of sports?

Oreffice: Sports continue to take on an increasingly important role in the fabric of society. Just watch the news or read a magazine, and it is clear that sports can either be a support for virtue and many positive things or, unfortunately, as we see so often today, many negative things.

It is a vital area for us as Catholics to respond to the call for the new evangelization. Pope John Paul II laid out the need clearly during the Jubilee in 2000 when he said: "Playing sports has become very important today, since it can encourage young people to develop important values such as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity. ... Because of the global dimensions this activity has assumed, those involved in sports throughout the world have a great responsibility."

The world of sports cannot be left void of virtue, character and the Gospel.

Q: But many others are already doing that. What does your organization do that's different from many others such as the YMCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic Youth Organization, etc.?

Oreffice: Our organization exists to complement established organizations, not to compete with them.

We try to work with existing groups to add something they may not have -- not to take away from what they already have.

There are four distinctive elements that set us apart from other organizations. First, we are not a "league" organizer like a YMCA or CYO, but are more focused on providing virtue programs to established teams and leagues.

As well, our programs are unique in that they are based on Catholic principles and can be delivered within a specifically Catholic context, or on a purely virtue-based platform -- that we could call "catholic," as a pre-evangelization tool.

A third distinction of SportsLeader is that our approach starts with coaches. Because they are in such an important position to influence young people, we try to help coaches be more effective as models and promoters of virtue. SportsLeader provides coaches with a comprehensive program to apply to their team and all the tools they need to be successful in this mission.

Finally, SportsLeader is developing programs for all levels of sports, from recreational leagues to professional athletes.

I think there are very few distinctly Catholic organizations with these four characteristics, and this sets SportsLeader apart.

Q: I understand your apostolate is just getting started. What are you doing now? Where do you plan to go?

Oreffice: As providence would have it, the birth of SportsLeader and the announcement of the new office of "Church and Sport" of the Pontifical Council for the Laity occurred around the same time last year.

We've just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the SportsLeader pilot programs in the Ohio Valley where we have been working primarily with middle school and high school coaches and teams, but also with athletic camps and recreational leagues.

During these pilots we have had the opportunity to develop and refine our program content and methods. The best part of our work, though, is seeing the fruits. We've had players returning to the sacraments, brothers and sisters learning to get along better, and even our first two teams winning league championships.

A seventh-grade boy from one of those teams was on his way to the championship game and his mother asked if he was praying for a win. He replied, "Mom, we don't ask God for wins. We ask him for the strength to do his will." Testimonies like this make my job a real joy.

At this stage, we are working to make these programs available elsewhere. We are just now at the phase in our development where we are going from a regional program to a national program in the United States and that rollout is happening now.

From there we are looking to expand internationally in Mexico, Brazil, Spain and Italy over the coming months.

Q: How does SportsLeader work together with local pastors and bishops?

Oreffice: SportsLeader is at the service of the Church and at the service of local pastors and bishops.

We exist to support the programs of a parish or diocese and to enrich them with specifically Catholic-based sports virtue programming.

With our model, we can complement the sports activity already going on in a diocese and provide parishes with tools to enrich their own recreational leagues. Additionally, we are providing networking opportunities for SportsLeader coaches within a diocese with a monthly SportsLeader Speaker Series which we are just beginning in our pilot region.

Wherever we go, we try to adapt as much as possible to the specific needs that the bishop or local pastor see for their diocese or parish, building on their leadership and pastoral experience.

Q: What's the inspiration behind all this?

Oreffice: SportsLeader is really a grass-roots apostolate.

A former Ohio State football player by the name of Joe Lukens -- through the promptings of the Holy Spirit -- saw the need for some type of virtue program. He saw the world of sports drifting away from a Catholic vision of sports, yet at the same time he recognized that sports and a coach in particular can play a pivotal role in the virtuous development of young men and women.

He brought some first ideas to two priests from the Legionaries of Christ, Father Matthew van Smoorenburg and Father Eamon Kelly. He soon got into contact with Jason Garrett, the national director of ConQuest boys clubs, and eventually hired a regional director to launch the apostolate in the Ohio Valley.

From these humble beginnings, we have worked to create a solid foundation and develop SportsLeader in its mission to provide programs, support and networking throughout all levels of sports that evangelize the world of sports, and through the world of sports.

SportsLeader is now an officially established charitable organization and is a proud affiliate of Catholic Youth World Network.

Q: How can someone get involved?

Oreffice: Like any work of the laity, we need lots of committed people to be involved in order to fulfill our mission.

We need people who can organize at the local level, benefactors to help fund the programs, professional athletes who want to embrace their call to be role models, and coaches who want to change lives on and off the field.


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