Saints who were athletes

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Sport can be a great tool as we seek to grow in discipline and devotion.

It is a challenge in today’s world to embrace the love of sport without allowing sport to become the center of one’s life, or even the life of an entire family. Players and fans may be tempted to find their identity in their performance or the performance of a favorite team. But the Saints who were athletes show us that it is possible to balance a love of athletics with a life of prayer and service. They also remind us that people with ordinary hobbies can be saints and that sport can be a great tool as we seek to grow in discipline and devotion.

Saint Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe (1860-1885) was born in what is now Uganda and became a page in the king’s court, where he converted to Catholicism and was ultimately chosen as head of the Catholic community. Like Saint Charles Lwanga (who succeeded him at the head of the Christian pages), Balikuddembe was a talented wrestler. He was also known to be a fast runner with great endurance, frequently running forty kilometers to be with catechumens in more distant places. When he opposed the king’s decision to have an Anglican bishop killed, he obtained (the next day) permission to chase the executioners and stop the execution. Although he was working hard, he arrived too late. He failed to save the convict and was soon killed too.

Servant of God Rosa Giovannetti (1896-1929) was an Italian catechist and talented cellist who traveled through Italy giving benefit concerts to support the migrants and refugees she served. She also played the piano and enjoyed swimming, diving and boat races, even participating in swim races occasionally. In her 30s, Rosa developed a horribly painful skin disease that claimed her life at the age of 33.

Bl. Alberto Marvelli (1918-1946) was a young Italian graduate in engineering. A longtime athlete, Alberto was an excellent swimmer and football player (often scoring as a striker) and also played volleyball and table tennis. It was his cycling, however, that would prove to be the most fruitful; leader of Catholic Action, Alberto walked to collect food and clothes, then distribute them to the poor, even going so far as to donate his own shoes or his bicycle if he found people in need. He also worked as a member of the resistance, freeing those arrested by the Nazis and destined for concentration camps by unlocking the wagons they were in. After the war Alberto was put in charge of allocating housing and then ran for political office. He was cycling to an election meeting when he was hit by a truck and killed; after his death he was elected to this post.

Fri. Maria Orsola Bussone (1954-1970) was an Italian teenager who played guitar and loved to sing, especially on pop music. She also enjoyed sports, especially roller skating, skiing, swimming and cycling. A member of the Focolare movement, Maria was involved in evangelization and developed a powerful sense of the beauty of suffering when united to the Cross. She was electrocuted while drying her hair when she was only 15 years old.

Saint-Dulce Pontes (1914-1992) was a Brazilian nun who was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work with the poor. A fan of the Ypiranga football team, the young Dulce goes to the stadium to cheer them on every Sunday with her father. But she didn’t limit her love of football to watching; Dulce also played, as a child and later after entering religious life, playing with children on the streets to bring joy to their difficult lives. Dulce also built hospitals and soup kitchens and played the accordion to boost workers’ morale.

Servant of God Guido Schäffer (1974-2009) was a Brazilian doctor and seminarian. He spent his time visiting the poor and providing medical care, organizing prayer groups for his friends, and surfing near his home in Copacabana. According to a friend, Guido said that “riding a tube, riding a tube was the perfect experience because it was like being kissed by God.” He had almost finished the seminar when he and a few friends went surfing as a sort of bachelorette party for a friend who was getting married the next day. They prayed together before going out, but Guido soon fell off his board, which hit him on the neck and knocked him unconscious; he drowned before his friends could drag his body to shore.

Fri. Matteo farina (1990-2009) was a young athlete and musician who played guitar and loved chemistry. He hoped to become an environmental engineer, but was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 13 and died six years later. During his illness, he suffered from joy and continued to kiss Jesus like an ordinary teenager, between group rehearsals and dates with his girlfriend. Over the years he has practiced karate, basketball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and volleyball.

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