Team Spirit . . . and Spiritual Teams

There was an observation made frequently during my time studying music and liturgy at the University of Notre Dame: the best liturgy on campus was held in the football stadium. Never having attended a game, I wasn’t able to verify this personally, but the number of persons who made the observation and the frequency with which it was made caused me never to doubt it.

As an odd corollary, I did have the experience one Saturday morning in South Bend of deciding to take myself out to breakfast. At the restaurant, I came to learn that I was wearing the wrong color sweatshirt, which evidently was the color of the opposing team that football weekend. My indifference—both to things sartorial and to organized sports—was mistaken for hostility. Within five minutes or so I received nasty comments from the hostess, from a man who I presumed was a manager of some sort, my server, another server, and other customers at a nearby table. I decided to leave without eating and drove through a fast-food place. (It has long mystified me as to how a place with that kind of attitude survived, given the number of opposing team visitors who come to South Bend.)

Living in Chicago these days between the Chicago Cubs’ world series victory and election day has certainly given me plenty of opportunity to witness the mania—and inappropriate or disproportionate response—that team allegiance generates in the surrounding culture. I know that my general indifference to organized sports is its own kind of bias, so I don’t pretend to have objectivity on the matter. (I unintentionally wore a pale blue plaid shirt to work the day after the world series concluded. I was told several times that it was the “wrong” blue—so history does rhyme, if not repeat.) Also, as a citizen and member of the body politic in the U.S., I certainly do have my own viewpoints, but I’ve not been able to bring myself to the point of sweeping aside the ability to think critically about issues and candidates, or to “unfriend” people on social media, or to think that ignoring others is actually civil or charitable behavior.

Whether as a member of the Body Politic or the Body of Christ, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the values of the surrounding culture impact us as people of faith, and consequently our liturgical practices and decisions. These values, I believe, seep into our lives in a gradual, sneaky manner, and only eventually manifest themselves in overt ways. Those of us involved (or hyper-involved) in church and ministry will think of the worship wars, or the ecclesial factionalizing that leads to incredible amounts of vitriol and contortions both linguistic and logical for the sake of the team. The same mentality leads many of us to live in echo chambers, where we don’t have to face up to the possibility that we might be wrong, or embrace the potential to be enriched by other points of view.

In a less overt way, I notice a divergence in the language of corporate identity when it comes to sports allegiance (in Chicago, I’ve come to refer to this corporate identity as the “Corpus Cubsti”) and church membership. At work, at church, in the grocery store, on the TV or radio news, most who talk about the Cubs’ world series victory will speak of what “we” did or how it looked like “we” were going to blow it after game four, and so on. Perhaps my ears are bit more finely tuned in the days after All Saints/Souls, but among my church-ministry friends and colleagues, I don’t hear we/us vocabulary speaking of the Church, the communion of saints. When I go to different parishes (usually as a substitute organist), the language of the intercessory prayer for the Church rarely uses us/we/our language; it often sounds as though this “church” is an entity (like hurricane victims on a distant island) separate from this group of people gathered to pray. This is a divergence I noted nearly thirty years ago when doing my graduate studies at Notre Dame, and I continue to experience it to this day.

Both social anthropologists and neuroscientists tell us that our team/pack mentality is very deeply seated in our human nature, as part of our self-preservation system. So it seems to be part of how we were created, and have evolved. Some are beginning to speculate that the recent quieting of the worship wars may be happening because the urgency of larger-scale self-preservation has taken over. Others have noted that the self-preservation instinct has led to an alliance between some Roman Catholics and Protestants who would have been—fifty years ago or so—condemning the other “team” to eternal damnation. Admittedly, some remnants of both groups have been condemning the recent events connected to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

I believe that the pervasiveness of the team/pack mentality, along with its inappropriate or disproportionate responses, qualifies as a “sign of our times” and, therefore, we can be guided by the wisdom of the Spirit, assess it critically, and live it out carefully, as Vatican II called us to:

[. . .] the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. (Gaudium et Spes 3, 4)

We do not and cannot know what the next few days—and beyond—will hold. All we can hope for, and pray for, and show forth by our living is the friendship generated by the Spirit’s wisdom, as we continue on in Gospel light.


  1. I think the pack mentality is far older than the Chicago Cubs.

    As a person who has enjoyed the “culture” of sport as well as the “culture” of faith, I perceive a few things about our American civic religion of things athletic and competitive. There are significant commonalities with the sphere of faith.

    Your experience with the wrong color was not dissimilar to a person wearing orange in Ireland, or attending a funeral in white, or dressing business casual at a white-tie event. How is one to know that Cub blue isn’t the same as other blues: the navy of the Indians or the light blue of last year’s Series winners? Or that wearing green when Michigan State comes to South Bend is a fashion faux pas? The same way one might not wear green or red vestments on Christmas day. Or sing “Silent Night” on the first Sunday of Advent. One makes a choice to become part of the human culture of one’s neighborhood, city, church, or whatever. The pack may be a pack, and an impolite one at that when they detect non-compliance. But they express a communal identity through what they wear, what they sing, and even, alas, how they mistreat visitors and newcomers.

    Alan, your post is indeed a reminder for a lot of us to be exceedingly charitable in our practice of liturgy, to ensure that people are well-mentored in our traditions, and perhaps to see that we are not so different from the sports-crazed pagans. There is some union in that commonality, perhaps.

    By the way, congrats on the Cubs.

  2. Ah, liturgy and colleges. I attended The University of Virginia starting at the end of the 1970s. UVa’s football team had endured something like 22 successive loosing seasons by that point, and was mulling over a supposed challenge from Northwestern (if memory serves; CalTech having left the division) for a joke title of worst Division I team. At this point in time, the purpose of football games at UVa were liturgical: one was to show up in proper attire (for men, ideally jacket and tie, though not necessarily a shirt…) and drink to excess and sing songs. That season, the team had a (barely) winning season. There was a Disturbance In The Force: I remember my RA commenting with sadness that the End Is Nigh – people were starting to pay attention to what was happening on the field, like any other State U – the mind reels. (The chosen acronym of derision for this coming baleful state of mind was “Creeping SUVAC” – as in the non-name of The State University of Virginia at Charlottesville.)

    Charlotteville bursted with such liturgies. Most notorious was Easters (no, not Easter, though proximate in time). Don’t ask. (The American spring university cognate to Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival.)

    One of the more charming things what was, by that time, an annual rite of watching It’s A Wonderful Life (this is before it was televised, btw) at the English department during fall semester final examinations – complete with audience participation. ….

    You know how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb? Five: one to change the bulb, and four others to reminisce fondly over how wonderful the old bulb was.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. When people create ferocious insider-outsider dynamics, especially ones with punitive behaviors directed at those who are on the “wrong” side, you can pretty much guarantee that the gospel will go to the wall. Not because we can’t have a healthy set of boundaries with charity — we need boundaries; boundaries let us know who we are — but because of all the other sinful habits that come into play, ones that shame, blame, scapegoat, and hold people bound.

  4. In a culture as sports-laden as American culture, Alan’s remarks are quite interesting. In addition to the question of the disloyalty of wearing the wrong colors there is the way in which athletes, the media, and sports fans slip easily into military language when talking sports. Games are “battles,” and athletes (notably in football and hockey) speak of being “warriors.” Besides cheapening the trauma of actual wars, this kind of language invests team spirit with a hostility toward the other which is not helpful for charitable dialogue about matters theological, liturgical or political. That said, I hope the New York Rangers never win another game. I really don’t like them!

  5. As a member of CMAA, I thank you for this reflection. I certainly can tend to keep myself in an echo chamber (hence my intention to continue visits to this page). That causes me to see “opposing” views as hostile. Instead, I should remind myself of the we of the Church. Thank you.

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