Come on, you saints
Patrick West on why so many priests love the beautiful game
One of the great comic devices of the television comedy Father Ted was
having Ardal O'Hanlon's Fr Dougal wear a Republic of Ireland football shirt
in bed. Good comedy is often based on incongruity - a horse walks into a
bar: "why the long face?" - and whereas there's a common perception that
priests are responsible, kindly and serious types, football conversely
brings to mind stereotypes that are more aggressive or frivolous. To connect
things that belong in opposing mental categories is funny in both senses.
Putting priests and football together makes us smile. Hence the graffiti
legend: "Jesus Saves but Keegan scores on the rebound."
This was why much of the media thought it a wheeze to report that Pope
Francis is a card-carrying fan of the Argentinian football club San Lorenzo.
The Sun certainly did so with a gallery of photographs of him holding aloft
a replica shirt and club flag. That newspaper also had a striking headline
after Pope Francis's election: "The New Hand of God", a reference to
Maradona's fist, which put England out of the 1986 World Cup. And it's the
reason why one of the most celebrated Father Ted episodes is the one about a
When you think about it, football and faith is not really an unlikely
association. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Buenos Aires priest
named Lorenzo Massa, who was concerned about children playing football near
tram tracks, told the boys that they could instead play in the church's
backyard - as long as they went to Mass on Sundays. A football club was
eventually established in 1908, and although he initially refused the
honour, Lorenzo finally accepted the proposal to name it after him.
San Lorenzo team's nickname, "the Saints", is the same as Southampton FC's.
The English clubwas founded by members of the St Mary's Church of England
Young Men's Association a reminder of how sport and muscular Christianity
were intertwined in Britain. The Northampton Saints rugby union team was
established in 1880 by a vicar for this reason, and in Ireland the clergy
were at the forefront in the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. So
while it might appear odd to many atheists when American Football players
kneel to praise God, or southern European footballers cross themselves
before games (by my logic, asking God to make the other team lose), it's
only superficially irrational.
In 2009, a priest in Manchester who reads the scores after the Saturday
evening Mass was quoted saying he asked worshippers to pray for Manchester
United victories. But Fr Paddy McMahon, of St John's in Chorlton, hastened
to add: "...and Manchester City, but then they really need it! It's a bit of
fun." (His prayers came true: City won the league last season). You'd have
to be rather dim to take his exhortations literally, and Fr McMahon
explained that "talking about football at the end of Mass means people leave
with a smile on their faces". The spectacle of a group of people seen
leaving a church smiling: what a fantastic advert for the Church.
Indeed, some have used football deliberately this way. In 2006 Fr David Cain
of St Barnabas, Nottingham, established a "World Cup chapel" to coincide
with a poster recruitment campaign for the priesthood. Fr Cain was also
asked about partisanship and its potentially divisive nature. "Although,
understandably many people will be fiercely cheering on their own nation,"
he said, "sport generally, and football in particular, can provide a great
bridge in promoting harmony between nations despite differences that exist
in race, religion or politics."
Like religion, football teaches you life lessons. It instills discipline,
hard work, self-control and self-respect. It makes you value leadership and
the virtues of co-operation, and to realise that there are some situations
you can't change and some you can. This is why Christians of the 19th
century were so keen on football. It's true that money has ruined the game
in recent years, but that's because footballers have become spoilt. The
sport remains inherently a good thing.
These are some of the reasons why in 2007 the Vatican established its own
domestic competition, the Clericus Cup. It was the creation of Cardinal
Tarcisio Bertone, a fervent Juventus fan and a football commentator in a
country beset by corruption in politics and sport itself. It was devised
consciously as a way of setting a good example.
The relationship between football and the Church in Italy has always been a
close one. As an expert on Italy, Paddy Agnew puts it: "Ninety-six percent
of Italians are nominal Catholics, but the same 96 per cent are committed
football fans." Most children play their first game at church-run youth
clubs, and a lot of priests remain players. For them, the Clericus Cup can
serve as a reminder in humility. Players must do community service if they
are issued a yellow or red card. A player given a blue card is sent to a
"sin bin" for five minutes of contemplation perhaps even to ask for
As the captain of the British team, Tony Preston, reflected after losing to
a team of Croatian priests in the 2008 semi-finals: "The whole idea, not to
get too heavy, is the idea of sport bringing the finer qualities out of
humanity, like humility in victory and gracious in defeat we've got a bit
of experience in that." Sport and religion can be an ideal combination. As
in life, football teaches you that you win some, you lose some. Apparently,
however, football has no agreed patron saint. A fine choice would naturally
be St Mirren.
Patrick West is author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How The Irish
Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006)