It’s challenging in today’s world to embrace a love of sports without allowing sports to become the center of one’s life, or even of an entire family’s life. Both players and fans may be tempted to find their identity in their performance or the performance of a preferred team. But Saints who were athletes show us that it’s possible to balance love of athletics with a life centered on prayer and service. They also remind us that people with ordinary hobbies can be saints—and that sports can be a great tool as we seek to grow in discipline and devotion.
St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe (1860-1885) was born in what is now Uganda and became a page at the king’s court, where he converted to Catholicism and was eventually chosen as leader of the Catholic community. Like St. Charles Lwanga (who succeeded him as head of the Christian pages), Balikuddembe was a talented wrestler. He was also known to be a fast runner with great endurance, frequently running some forty miles to be with catechumens in more remote locations. When he objected to the king’s decision to have an Anglican bishop killed, he obtained permission (the next day) to run after the executioners and halt the execution. Though he spent himself on the task, he arrived too late. He failed to save the condemned man and was soon killed as well.
Servant of God Rosa Giovannetti (1896-1929) was an Italian catechist and a talented cellist who toured Italy giving benefit concerts to support the migrants and refugees whom she served. She also played piano and loved swimming, diving, and boat racing, even occasionally participating in swimming races. In her 30s, Rosa developed a horrifically painful skin condition that took her life when she was 33.
Bl. Alberto Marvelli (1918-1946) was a young Italian bachelor with a degree in engineering. A lifelong athlete, Alberto was an excellent swimmer and soccer player (frequently scoring in his position as striker) and played volleyball and ping pong as well. It was his cycling, though, that would prove most fruitful; a leader in Catholic Action, Alberto would ride around collecting food and clothing, then distributing all this to the poor—even giving away his own shoes or his very bicycle if he found people in need. He also worked as a member of the resistance, freeing those arrested by the Nazis and bound for concentration camps by unlocking the train cars they were in. After the war, Alberto was tasked with allotting housing and later ran for political office. He was biking to an election meeting when he was hit by a truck and killed; after his death, he was elected to the position.
Ven. Maria Orsola Bussone (1954-1970) was an Italian teenager who played guitar and loved singing, especially to pop music. She loved sports as well, 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 it’s united to the Cross. She was electrocuted while blow-drying her hair when she was only 15.
St. 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 soccer team, young Dulce went to the stadium to cheer them on every Sunday with her father. But she didn’t limit her love of soccer to watching; Dulce played as well, both in childhood and later after entering religious life, playing with children in the street to bring joy into their difficult lives. Dulce also built hospitals and soup kitchens and played her accordion to cheer up workers.
Servant of God Guido Schäffer (1974-2009) was a Brazilian doctor and seminarian. He spent his time visiting the poor and offering them medical care, organizing prayer groups for his friends, and surfing near his home in Copacabana. According to a friend, Guido said that “surfing a tube, riding a tube was the perfect experience because it was like being embraced by God.” He was nearly done with seminary when he and a few friends went surfing as a sort of bachelor party for a friend who was getting married the next day. They prayed together before they went out, but Guido soon fell from his board, which hit him in the neck and knocked him unconscious; he drowned before his friends could pull his body to shore.
Ven. 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 13 and died six years later. During his illness, he suffered with joy and continued to embrace Jesus as an ordinary teenager—between band practice and dates with his girlfriend. Over the years, he participated in karate, basketball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis, and volleyball.