Faculty Focus: Meet Fr. Patrick Kelly

VN: What do you do at Detroit Mercy?

Father Patrick Kelly: I teach in the religious studies department and some courses that I teach deal with sports. I’m currently teaching Sports and Spiritual Traditions. I also work with the Office of Mission Integration.  

VN: Why did you decide to come to Detroit Mercy?

FPK: I actually graduated from here in 1982, although I was only here for one year. This is where I first met the Jesuits and became immediately drawn to their way of life. This place really changed my life when I was 21. Later I taught here in the mid 90s as a Jesuit in formation.  Before coming to Detroit Mercy in 2019, I taught at Seattle University for 13 years. But I wanted to make a change for different reasons, and I just felt drawn to come back.  This is also my hometown which played a big part. Now that I am here I am enjoying teaching the students, and really appreciate the commitment of faculty and other colleagues to our students and the university’s educational mission.  

VN: What interested you in sports and spirituality?   

FPK: Well, I grew up playing sports in the Detroit area while in high school, and then I played college football at Grand Valley State University. I became interested in learning more about my Catholic faith when I was in college. For a while in my 20s I thought that I should just put all my experiences playing sports behind me. As St. Paul says, “when I became a man I put aside childish things”.  Over time I realized that this didn’t work well, however; this is because the human formation that I experienced playing sports was influencing my attempts to live the spiritual life. I realized I had one life. At this point, I began reflecting on how playing sports helped me in terms of being a human being, growing and making friendships and maybe even in terms of appreciating spiritual values, and also about how playing sports hindered my growth or led me to internalize values contrary to the gospel. Later I would study these things in an academic way. 

VN: What are your current course goals when teaching Sports and Spiritual Traditions? 

FPK: In this course we are trying to understand the human and cultural and even spiritual significance of sport. We make use of the flow theory of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to help us understand how sport participation, which is enjoyable in itself, can also be related to the flourishing of persons. The elements of flow, such as centering of attention, egolessness and union with one’s surroundings, and altered sense of time, are very similar to the experiences spiritual writers have written about when describing the dynamics of the spiritual life. So it is a good resource to use to bring many spiritual traditions into conversation with one another. We study, among other things, zen meditation, the Confucian and Taoist notion of “wu-wei” and Ignatius of Loyola’s notion of “spiritual consolation” in dialogue with flow theory. 

In the last part of the course, we study how sport can help to foster encounter between peoples, the common good and the unity of the human family. We learn how Nelson Mandela’s leadership made it possible for sport to play a role in fostering unity in post-Apartheid South Africa, for example. We also study the way sport participation contributes to well-being and growth for young people in various contexts of crisis, racial or religious discrimination or social exclusion and how this participation can also challenge current discriminatory attitudes and contribute to change in society itself. 

VN: What is your most rewarding accomplishment in your career? 

FPK: I’ve been working with Vatican offices in the Catholic church when they do conferences relating to sports, which is very rewarding. So last September I introduced Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and he spoke to this international gathering in Rome about the importance of play and sport, particularly for young people in refugee camps. Before that I gave an introductory talk about the importance of sports being accessible to people in different kinds of situations of marginalization or exclusion and how they can have a positive impact on people’s lives.