SAN ANTONIO (AP) — On the night before Easter, a night when Sister Jean could reasonably be contemplating more consequential affairs, she will instead be festooned in her maroon and yellow letter jacket, sitting in her wheelchair on the floor of one of America’s greatest sports cathedrals, praying for an entirely different sort of miracle.
She’ll be trying to will the underdog, 11th-seeded Ramblers from the Jesuit school of Loyola-Chicago another step along the road to a national championship. It’s a road even the most pious fan wouldn’t have dreamed of a mere three weeks ago.
More than any single player or coach, it is the 98-year-old nun, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, who has left an indelible mark on this year’s NCAA Tournament, with her scouting reports and T-shirt-ready advice — “Worship, work and wisdom” — lending an almost otherworldly credence to the idea that, in sports, anything is possible.
And for those seeking a deeper meaning to Loyola’s improbable trip to the Final Four, her presence raises questions that would normally be out of bounds in most mainstream sports conversations:
Do Sister Jean’s prayers carry more weight than, say, those of the Michigan fans who will be rooting against Loyola on Saturday?
Is it OK to pray for something as pedestrian as, say, your team to win the big game?
Do miracles really happen in sports?
To sum them all up: Does God really care about basketball?
“Because God cares about the whole health of a human being, and because play is an element of the human experience, God cares about play,” says Joe Price, an ordained minister who teaches classes on sports and religion at Whittier College. “Now, whether God cares about competitive sport at a professional level is perhaps a different question.”
Big-time sports has been long familiar with enthusiastically religious athletes and ultra-successful programs from religious colleges. Tim Tebow, Carson Wentz and Kurt Warner; Notre Dame, BYU and, yes, another Final Four participant this weekend, Villanova. They and others have come to the fore and brought their religion with them, front and center.
And yet, Loyola feels like something different. Instead of a player or coach who stands out as the main catalyst for all this success, it’s a nun who is not only bringing added attention to her beloved players, but doing it in a way that unravels stereotypes about the elderly to say nothing of the millions of women who have chosen her calling over the centuries.
“She’s showing that, yes, nuns are regular people with a special calling,” says Rebecca Alpert, a religion professor at Temple whose book, “Religion and Sports,” looks at ways those two facets of life intersect. “She’s photogenic. She’s media savvy. It’s a great story. I like hearing it. I’ll buy a bobblehead.”
It also brings up this awkward dissonance: Villanova is also accompanied by a person of the cloth, the Rev. Rob Hagan. And yet, because he represents a school that is better known, top seeded, a champion only two years ago and the furthest thing from a plucky underdog, Father Rob is a supporting player in this drama — no bobblehead as of yet — who is receiving his 15 minutes in large part because Sister Jean has gotten hers on the other side of the bracket.
Which brings up the question: If Father Rob’s and Sister Jean’s teams square off in an all-Catholic final Monday night, who wins?
Another way to ask it is whether Sister Jean’s prayers hold any more weight than those of others, including secular fans who may want Kansas or Michigan to win on Saturday — to say nothing of the poor folks who were pulling for Kansas State or Texas Tech last weekend in the Elite Eight.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Price says. “It’s about discipline and it’s about frequency (of praying), and that doesn’t necessarily mean (Sister Jean’s) prayers are heard better. But they’re articulated in ways that are not about self-gratification. Cheering for a bunch of young men to play their best and fulfill their dream is different from, let’s say, a stock car racer who prays to the Lord for a caution flag to come out so he can win the race.”
The idea of divine intervention in sports goes way back, even decades before Al Michaels famously asked “Do you believe in miracles?” as the seconds ticked down in the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s seminal victory over the Russians — a bunch of amateurs unbelievably beating a bunch of professionals.
And yet, the so-called “Miracle on Ice” hardly stands alone in sports, where the never-ending search for the upset, the unexpected, the unexplainable, is, in fact, “the reason we play the game.”
Miracle in the Meadowlands.
Music City Miracle.
The Immaculate Reception.
The winner of the first three women’s national titles: Immaculata College . That was no miracle.
But if little Loyola-Chicago is cutting down nets come Monday night, well, that might be — even if God is in no way connected to the actual result.
“The word ‘miracle’ is very important because what it signals is something intruding on your day-to-day reality and reminding you that the world is a much more complicated and beautiful place,” Alpert says. “You don’t have to make the assumption that there’s an all-knowing God intervening and making this happen.”
Though no harm if you do.
From all the corruption that’s been unmasked in college basketball to the sex-abuse scandals involving Larry Nassar and gymnastics to the Russian doping scandal at the Olympics, sports has become an ugly, ungodly sort of place of late.
Miracle or no, who’s to say a 98-year-old superfan and her 11th-seeded team from out of nowhere can’t help drag some sports fans from that abyss?
“We can’t possibly forget the kinds of questions and issues that are being raised,” Alpert says. “But this has … pulled us away from things that are hurting sports today. If you look at it that way, then we can all be very grateful to Sister Jean.”