Fr. Kelly focuses on sport and faith in book, Vatican visits

Patrick Kelly, S.J., has been an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy since 2021. In the mid 90s, Fr. Kelly taught for three years at the university during his formation as a young Jesuit. Now, he has returned to campus to inspire students to investigate the connection between sport and faith within their own lives.

In his most recent book, “Play, Sport, and Spirit,” Fr. Kelly explores the significance of play and sports in their human and cultural contexts. As part of this work, he provides a theological assessment on evolving Christian attitudes towards sport and play. Additionally, he includes a multitude of in-depth perspectives from an array of philosophers and psychologists. Topics range from the evolution of play and sport, the freedom of play, as well as the joy of playing sports within the framework of flow psychology, a concept formulated by Fr. Kelly’s mentor during his doctoral studies, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

To establish a “through-line” between play, sport and spirituality, Fr. Kelly brought experiences of freedom and joy when playing sports into dialogue with experiences of what Ignatius of Loyola calls spiritual consolation. 

“In Catholic theology terms,” Fr. Kelly said, “we might say it is a new way to understand how grace builds on, and perfects nature.”

Recognizing the human significance of play and sport is relevant today, as an increased number of young people and schools are interested in athletics with the intention of pursuing external goods, such as money or fame.    

In the wake of the conference realignment in college sports, the instrumentalization of sports could lead to the loss of connection, something that Fr. Kelly deems as an essential value within sport. “When sport becomes instrumentalized,” Fr. Kelly said, “it becomes individualized, whether it is the person or the institution. The real value of sport, or at least one of the values, is learning how to be a part of something larger than yourself.”

The significance of embracing a shared purpose is exemplified in the global impact Fr. Kelly has made within the subject of sport and spirituality.

Apart from his time at the University of Detroit Mercy, Fr. Kelly teaches graduate level courses in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University every other winter semester. One of the aspects he finds gratifying in his international work is learning about the diverse backgrounds of his students, stemming from all parts of the world including regions of India, Africa, South Korea, Japan, Latin America and more.

Additionally, Fr. Kelly has made extensive contributions to the discipline of Catholic theology, as he collaborated on writing the first ever book-length Vatican document about sport in 2018. This past year, Fr. Kelly worked with an international team writing and revising a Declaration about what sport could and should be after the pandemic. This Declaration was presented by Pope Francis to all participants at the “Sport for All” summit held at the Vatican last September.

The summit focused on sports as a common human endeavor which needs to be inclusive and accessible to all . Fr. Kelly was invited to serve as chair of the session on Accessibility within sport and play. He also introduced the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo         Grandi, who spoke on the importance of play for children in refugee camps.

Prominent individuals from all domains attended the summit, including sport coaches, international media, business executives, players from various teams, and the President of the Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.

During his time at the conference, Fr. Kelly and other speakers lived alongside Pope Francis in Santa Marta. 

“It was moving in the sense that he (Pope Francis) really emphasizes that priests need to be close to the people, and this is a concrete example of that,” Fr. Kelly said.

Despite his multiple visits to the Vatican over the years, Fr. Kelly remains excited about the global sense of interconnectedness and collaboration it fosters. 

“There is something exhilarating, and this is true generally in my time participating in conferences there, being with people from all over the world,” Fr. Kelly said. “There are people from many different religious traditions, maybe they are not even practicing a religion, but they are connected to sport or serving humanity in some way; it was wonderful to be a part of.”

As a proud University of Detroit alum (82’), Fr. Kelly has appreciated his experience returning to the University of Detroit Mercy. 

“I enjoy our students very much and collaborating with our amazing colleagues, and especially with the Sisters of Mercy,” he said.

Fr. Kelly’s expertise in the intersection between sport and spirituality, within its broader human and cultural context, manifests in his passion and dedication for teaching and writing.

“Play, Sport, and Spirit” is available for purchase at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon.