Baseball’s spring training is upon us. Whether you’re a fervent or infrequent follower of the sport, many observers more insightful than I have called it “the most Catholic of all sports.” So said acclaimed St. John Paul II biographer George Weigel as he noted some of the game’s distinguishing aspects. First, having no game clock, baseball has a timeless and liturgical character. Second, with its field laid out with a potentially infinite outer limit — as far as one can hit the ball! — it has an eternal horizon. Finally, one could note the game’s aim of making it “home.”
As a boy growing up in small town Minnesota, I couldn’t articulate the religious dimensions of the game as Mr. Weigel does. But having our schoolyard ball diamond situated between the bell tower of St. Benedict’s and the immaculate Avon Lakers field certainly stirred the imagination.
Major League players returning to action down south was a signal to all boys that the snowdrifts would soon make way for the crack of wooden bats and slap of leather gloves. Our own preparations, we hoped, might contribute to Twins’ seasons as magical as 1987 or 1991, with our hero Kirby Puckett scaling even higher above the centerfield fence.
The synchronicity of baseball’s spring training with our season of Lent only adds to its Catholicity. In fact, we draw the word “Lent” from the German for spring. And just as a ball player doesn’t arrive at the ballpark in mid-season form, but must engage in a series of workouts, drills and game situations, so our own intentional relationship with Jesus requires an annual, focused period of preparation.
This is exactly what the Church invites us to within this season: to enter as fully as possible into the life of Christ as we are drawn into the mysteries of Holy Week. In the Paschal Mystery we find the pattern of holiness and freedom: dying that we might rise. This spiritual spring training aims to temper our passions for earthly things and place us in God’s plan of salvation.
The Apostle Paul writes, “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:25). As great as a World Series trophy might be, our hearts long for that which is eternal. Our entire lives are directed toward that goal (relationship with God) that can finally satisfy our deepest longings. Here we find the fire to fuel this time of preparation: the promise of joy that doesn’t just last a season, but corresponds to the infinite desires of the heart.
With these desires in mind, we approach the typical Lenten practices with new eyes. Just like a player who has tasted the thrill of postseason play, our understanding of why this early season training is so important deepens. Our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving take new life.
Now, prayer is more than just a rote recitation of prayers, a “thinking about God” or seeking him in crisis. Prayer is a daily dialogue about my real life — my hopes, dreams, fears and failures. So too with fasting: No longer is it an anxious avoidance of meat or chocolate or coffee creamer. Now fasting activates a deeper hunger for the most profound appetites of the heart: forgiveness, joy, charity. Finally, almsgiving is not just a few coins for the less fortunate. Rather, our giving helps us experience the life of the poor Christ in those desperate brothers and sisters who long to be noticed.
New beginnings are never easy, but engaging this season of Lent allows this “spiritual jumpstart” to be a collective one. No baseball player considers spring training an easy thing. Yet, once common goals are set before them, a sense of commitment to something beyond themselves takes hold. Our lives of faith, like in baseball, are a team effort, a practice of communion and mutual encouragement.
As players throughout the world of baseball work toward a World Series victory by building up their skills of throwing, hitting, fielding and running, may we who seek to follow Jesus into the desert of Lent also be given new energy and new eyes to pray, fast and lift up the poor. Let us take up this time of spiritual training, not alone, but buoyed by the conviction that many of those around us desire to refresh and deepen their trust in the saving power of Jesus. May we seek out others at a parish fish fry, a food or clothing drive, at the Stations of the Cross or a communal reconciliation service.
As we enter this season of spiritual spring training, let us “press on toward the goal: the prize of our upward calling in Christ Jesus!” (Philippians 3:14).
Father Scott Pogatchnik is rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral and pastor of St. Augustine Parish, both in St. Cloud. He also serves as the diocese’s vocation director.
Image courtesy of Getty Images/Courtney Keating