This past summer the Olympics gave us the opportunity to watch some of the greatest athletes in the world achieve success in a wide variety of sports. Many stood in the spotlight for their extraordinary athletic talents, and shone for the virtues they exhibited under pressure. One of these men, Jason Read of the United States men’s rowing team, had already demonstrated a great confidence and faith in himself in the September 11th rescue squad. However, the Olympics challenged him to take a step higher, to a deeper faith and confidence in God rather than himself.
The greatest day of this athlete’s life was not the day he lead his eight-man rowing team to win the Olympic gold. He had already celebrated a golden day in the Easter Vigil Mass of 2002 when he became Catholic. As the pacesetter at the head of the first-place team, Jason Read not only crossed the finish line first, but set an example of faith for all to follow.
The beginning of the training
In eighth grade, Read became interested in the powerful sport of rowing, and worked hard to play even though everyone thought he was too small to be a competitive rower. As an adult, he is only 6’1″, and weighs 180 lbs, while most rowers are bigger and heavier, but he has faith in himself: “I hate to lose, no matter what the endeavor. I will do everything in my power to win. Most of my rowing competition presupposes that because I’m small, I somehow won’t be able to beat them. You must have confidence in your skills and continually strive towards reducing or eliminating your own weaknesses.”
The terrorist attack of September 11th
Also as a young teenager, Read became interested in giving his time to help others, and volunteered with the Hopewell, New Jersey Fire Department at age 14. Two years later he was an emergency medical technician, and at 21 became the youngest person in his state to be chief of the rescue squad.
Only one hour outside Manhattan, Read’s life changed completely on September 11, 2001. He received one of the first calls after the first plane hit the Twin Towers, and raced to a command post to help coordinate 800 rescue workers, set up a field hospital, and finally go personally to Ground Zero to free the victims trapped below.
Along with many other 9/11 heroes Read worked for five days straight, stopping only once to sleep for eight hours at a hotel. He explains how this was possible: “In the face of entire shifts of firefighters killed in a matter of seconds, there was hope we would find people alive. Hope we would bring joy to a family that had loved ones missing. That kind of tenacity and gumption enabled many of the rescuers to work for days and days without sleep.”
The experience was so strong that Jason began to take a look at the meaning of his life on earth. What was the purpose of everything that he was doing, if he would not live forever? What was waiting for him after his death? “I had a sense of apathy about all things in the world that had meant so much to me,” he said, “Did I want to row anymore? Did I want to be chief of a volunteer rescue squad? What did it mean? All those people had been killed. Game over. Mortality became reality in a matter of seconds.”
The decision to become Catholic
Read already had a strong faith in himself, but now he knew that he needed a stronger faith in God. Even though he was not Catholic, the day after returning from Ground Zero he went to Mass. “It was emotional and revitalizing,” he said, “I prayed very hard -for the first time in my life.”
Father Tom Mullelly, chaplain of the Olympic rowing center at Princeton University, had been a friend of Jason’s. Now he helped the athlete in his search for a deeper faith. That next Easter, Jason experienced the hope of a real resurrection. He described this day as “one of the happiest days of my life. Fellowship, becoming Catholic as an adult and my uncanny ability to be relentlessly optimistic no matter how tumultuous and ugly life can be helped bring me back to life.” The confidence he had in himself had been shaken when he realized that he was not going to live forever, but it was replaced by something more steady, a confidence in God.
Family also played a key role of support, and Jason’s younger brother, Gunther, was baptized along with him. Jason’s faith became real and active in helping him live these relationships in a better way. “I’m a better brother, uncle and son. Now I understand how precarious life can be, how quickly things can change. And I am grateful for each and every moment.”
Victory on all fields
This spiritual victory went hand in hand with athletic success, and Read began to win medals and championships till the moment he earned the key seat in the Olympic team. However, even though he and his team’s victory is also the fruit of tremendous dedication and effort, Jason, like many other Olympic athletes, is grateful to God for his successes in sports. This does not mean that God makes some athletes win and the others lose. “Although prayer does not guarantee victory, it helps players put things in perspective and do all for God’s glory and not just their own” says Fr. Kevin Lixey, L.C. of the new Vatican sports department, “The virtue of gratitude, by which we recognize that all good things come from God, is both an act of humility as well as of praise and adoration.”
Jason was awarded the U.S. Rowing’s Man of the Year Award, but more important than what he did was why he did it. Before, he was rowing for himself, after his experience at Ground Zero and at the foot of Christ’s cross he learned to row for something besides himself. He rows for love of the sport, for love of his country, and for love of God who gave him the talents of an athlete. “After 9/11, I changed my approach to rowing. I no longer was fueled by vengeance and anger to beat other crews. My desire was to become the absolute best rower for America.” St. Paul says “Run so as to win (1 Corinthians 9:24),” but also emphasizes that any activity we do, if it is without love, is empty. Jason mastered both aspects, driving his team to win the gold while doing it not for himself, but for God.
- “I do not think of myself as having reached the finish line. I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what is ahead. My entire attention is on the finish line as I run toward the prize to which God calls me-life on high in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14
- “Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'” John 11:25-26
- “I myself am the living bread come down from Heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever.” John 6:51
- “Do you not know that in a all the , but only one gets the prize? in such a way as to get the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:24
Saints and Heroes
Pope John Paul II
As a young man he had the dream of becoming a teacher, a writer, and an actor, but God had a bigger plan. During the tragic events of World War II and after the death of his father he felt the call to be a priest. His dedication and faith have eventually led him, to his own surprise, to be called to be a bishop, cardinal, and also the Pope, the visible head of our Catholic Church. He has often been called “God’s athlete” because of the millions of miles he has traveled to encourage his brothers in the faith in every part of the world, and because neither an assassination attempt nor numerous illnesses have stopped his efforts. During his time as our Holy Father he has helped in the fall of Communism, created the World Youth Days, and inspired thousands of young men to become priests. His deepest purpose is the new evangelization of the modern world. His rallying cry is: “Be not afraid!”
Born in Ireland. After a happy childhood she felt the call to be a contemplative nun, but the death of her mother obliged her to help care for her family for a number of years. Then tuberculosis (a sickness of the lungs) made it impossible for her to enter the convent. Nevertheless she consecrated herself privately to God and became very active in door-to-door evangelization in the poorest neighborhoods of Dublin through an organization called the Legion of Mary. In spite of her poor health she insisted with the leaders of the Legion of Mary that she wanted to go to Africa to spread this good work. She eventually received permission and worked tirelessly in as a lay missionary in spite of her poor and failing health. Her dedication and love resulted in much success in that continent.
Confidence: Firm belief, trust
Faith: (In self) Confidence that one can do a good job.
(In God) Personal relationship with God. Trust in God’s love and readiness to do God’s will
Hope: (Human hope) Belief that what one desires can happen
(Theological hope) Confidence in God’s gift of eternal life, Confidence in God’s mercy
Humility: Freedom from pride and arrogance. A modest estimate of one’s own worth
Tenacity: Ability to persevere in the midst of difficulties
Fellowship: Friendship and encouragement of others with the same values. Christian friendship
Gratitude: Thankfulness. Ability to honor the help of God and others
- What are the different moments when this story speaks about hope? Are they different kinds of hope? What are some examples of the difference between hope in other people, and hope in God?
- What are the different moments when this story speaks about faith? Are they different kinds of faith? What are some examples of the difference between faith in other people, and faith in God?
- Would you say that September 11th was a tragedy for Jason, or an important moment in his life? Why? What made it either negative or positive for him?
- Was there something deeper that Jason discovered in the faith than just a solution to death? What was it?
- What was the difference in the way that Jason played sports before and after September 11th? What were the things that motivated him before and after?
- When athletes thank God for their triumphs, is it because he makes them win? Does he make the other people lose? If you lose during a game, does that mean that you did not pray as hard as the other person did?
- Jason Read became Catholic, but it was more than just a name that he called himself. How can you tell that he began to live as a real Catholic? How did he live his Catholic faith in his daily life.
- Let’s try to pick out some the key moments that God was working in Jason’s life. Let us try to imagine how God was trying to do something to help Jason and make him into a great person. What moments can you see in his life where God was working?
- Does receiving Christ in the Eucharist give you confidence and hope? Does it push you to be better? Why? Is the Eucharist just a symbol of God or is it something more? What more?
- Try to imagine how God is working in your life right now. What are some things that have happened recently, either big or ordinary, that might be ways God is trying to help you become a better person, student, son or daughter, friend, Christian, etc.?
- Do you thank God for the talents and successes he has given you, or do you forget? Take some time to write a thank you letter to God, for all of the things he has done for you recently, the happy moments, and the good things he has given you.
- In small groups, look for other inspiring cases of Olympic athletes, how they lived different virtues in their games. Write a short biography on these athletes, picking out 2-3 virtues that they demonstrate, and present it to the rest of the class. Some examples might be: Mariel Zagunis, Cesar Garcia, the Iraqi soccer team, etc.
- Go to Mass as a class, and try to imagine what it was like for Jason in that first Mass where he “prayed like he never did before.” Invite the pastor or a local priest to the class to speak moments when he has seen the power of the faith in others. Students each write a paragraph to try to answer this question: “What’s so great about your Catholic faith?”
- As a class, brainstorm ways that an athlete can give credit to God in sports (if they have the chance to say some words after the game, wearing a medal in the game, doing a team prayer before the game, giving a good example, showing joy, showing dedication in training, congratulating and encouraging others, using good language, etc.). If there are enough students on one of the school sports teams, encourage them to start a trend in the team to remember to ask God’s help and thank him for the successes he brings.
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Information on becoming Catholic: