Building a Championship Team – In the Church

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Okay, let me say it and get it over with. Congratulations to the New England Patriots for winning their fifth Super Bowl! The Pats had a great season, culminated by their historic comeback and a remarkable win in the championship game. Congrats to the team and their ever-so-loyal, if sometimes insufferable, fans!

And now, already, the fans are chanting for a sixth ring. Umm, let’s see . . . there’s only one NFL team that has already won six times. And who might that be? Oh, that’s right — the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But, I digress.

This column is about what it takes to build a championship team, on the football field and off. It all begins with a clear vision of the goal, a commitment that everyone buys into; and it involves teamwork, starting at the top of the organization and filtering down to the whole team. The Patriots have shown how well that works, haven’t they?

First, it’s the responsibility of the owner to provide the resources the team needs to be successful. Bob Kraft has done that, as have owners of other successful franchises in the league — the Rooney Family in Pittsburgh comes quickly to mind.

Without a doubt, a great team also needs a great coach, and here we reluctantly salute the genius of Bill Belichick. A football coach doesn’t have to throw the passes, run the ball, or tackle. And it’s been a long time since Belichick has blocked anyone – except the reporters at press conferences. But it’s up to the coach to have the right players on the field, to teach them to play their positions, and to have them working together as a team, creating a unity that trumps the accomplishments of any individual superstar.

And, of course, a winning team needs players who want to be the best; players who work hard, sacrifice themselves, and support one another in victory and defeat. I’m always struck by the sheer joy that players exhibit after a great play — end zone dances, high fives, bumping helmets, and prancing off the field. A winning team has no room for selfishness, whining, or dissension in the clubhouse.

Now it seems to me that the Church can learn something from the example of championship football teams.

First, the players, that is, the members of the Church, have to share a common vision of the purpose of their faith. They need to support one another, work for the common good and move beyond their particular interests, offering understanding when a teammate fumbles and praise when he succeeds. And, thanks be to God, I‘ve seen countless examples of this “team spirit” in the Church — members of the Church supporting, helping, encouraging one another, and it’s always a joy to behold.

Sometimes, though, I’ve witnessed a breakdown of team spirit in the Church, in our diocese, parishes and schools. It’s an unavoidable consequence of human frailty, I suppose, but it’s always really discouraging when it happens.

I’ve seen it, for example, when someone, with a narrow vision of charity or compassion, refuses to give to the Catholic Charity Appeal “because you’re giving all that money to refugees and illegals.”

I’ve seen it when priests rant against Catholic schools, emphasizing their cost, challenges and struggles, without acknowledging their important contributions and the generous, selfless commitment of those who have dedicated their lives to Catholic education.

I’ve seen it when priests, turned cynical and dispirited because of their own personal struggles, refuse to encourage vocations to the priesthood or religious life. These are the dysfunctional evangelizers whom Pope Francis has described as “pickled peppers, sourpusses,” those who look like “they’ve just come back from a funeral.”

I’ve seen it when committed Catholics are divided into two camps — the social justice camp, and the respect life camp, without acknowledging the legitimacy of the other agenda; without understanding that all of these issues are tightly woven into the “seamless garment” of life of which we so often speak.

I’ve seen it when critics ridicule the liturgical preferences of others regarding the style or color of vestments, the choice of hymns, the use of Latin, or the role of devotions, not recognizing that more significant than these externals is our internal, spiritual disposition of prayer.

The bottom line is that team spirit in the Church is even more important than it is on the football field, for here we’re dealing with a God-given, spiritual reality, the unity of the Body of Christ, a gift for which Jesus died on the Cross. “Now you are Christ’s Body, and individually parts of it . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’” St. Paul reminded the Corinthians.

And what about the coach in the Church? Well, in terms of the Diocese, I guess that would be me. I don’t have to play the skilled positions any more than Bill Belichick does. We’re both too old for that now. I don’t have to be an expert in finance, education, social services or Canon Law. But it is my responsibility to have the right players on the field, to encourage them to work together, and to develop a game plan that will help us win.

And finally, we cannot forget our owner. And this is the least of our worries, for our owner is God. He founded the Church, paid for it with the Blood of His Son, and guarantees its final victory with the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, He has given us all the resources we need to succeed!

The ultimate reward for our team — the glory of Heaven! And that will be far better than a glitzy Super Bowl ring!