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Alois Koch SJ
Youth, Church And Sport

webmaster's own, not authorized translation

German Version


Since Friday evening we are looking for reasons for the fact that young people turn their backs on church and sport. Various reasons for their absence have been named. They are quite plausible to me. Thus it seems difficult, almost impossible today on Sunday morning to say in 'The Word for the Day' something new, something appropriate. Nevertheless it seems useful, yes, necessary to me to emphasize one aspect that has, so it seems to me, been neglected in these days. In my opinion we looked far too much for the reasons in and by the young people, and not also by us, the managers, officials, and functionaries in church and sport. I reckon myself and many of you among these managers, officials and functionaries. For me some reasons for the absence of the young people seem to lie here. And I want to place this viewpoint into the centre of my remarks, respectively of a small "meditation". Thereby is also clear to what "literary form" my remarks belong. They are not to be taken as a scientific analysis, but as "paraenese", as admonishment, as incentive, as encouragement for acting; and that from insights reaching perhaps deeper as psychology and sociology are ever able to do.



I take as starting point a text of St Luke's gospel:

    "On his way to Jerusalem Jesus went across the border area of Samaria and Galilaea. When he wanted to enter a village ten lepers came to meet him. They stopped in the distance and called, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy with us!' He looked at them and then he said to them, 'Go, show yourselves to the priests!' And while they went to the priests they became pure. One of them however turned back when he saw that he had been healed; and he praised God with loud voice. He threw himself upon the ground before Jesus' feet and thanked him."



More than twenty years ago was published in Italy a novel of Curzio Malaparte with the title "The Skin". The novel describes - almost distastefully up to intolerability - the conditions in Naples at the end of the war. In broad pictures of disgust Malaparte shows how human beings are defeated, degraded, overrun and exploited, until only one aspect remains of them: their skin. The skin that everyone seeks to save; the skin that one risks; the skin out of that one jumps; the skin that one pulls over someone's head; that one seeks to sell as expensively as possible; human beings as nothing but skin and bones, as naked, wounded skin.

The parallelism to the text of the gospel can - according to my opinion - not be ignored. Is not the illness of leprosy (which seems at first to impair only the skin, i.e. the surface of man) an exact picture for the fact that people, yesterday as today, are very sensitive, very vulnerable, very much humiliated beings, who time and again need acceptance, encouragement and healing - not only outwardly, bodily, at the surface of their skin, but still more mentally? Is not any human being - in a quite elementary way - in need of those blessing, comforting, healing hands of good people? Do we not need the carefulness and tenderness of loving people, if we want to live healthily, contentedly and happily?

Jesus was met by ten men who were seen, because of their leprosy, as impure and were therefore excluded from the human community, from their own families; hence also excluded from any devotion and from the certainty to be accepted, affirmed and loved. They had to evade others, to get out of the way. Is that not exactly the situation of many people today? Are not many of us "leprous", "left out"? Do we feel we well "in our skin"? Do we not often also feel degraded, exploited, abused? Do we not often feel that only our outward side counts: that what is useful and usable; while what we are in our heart or would like to be is not asked, is uninteresting? Do not therefore dissociation and absence appear often as the only possibility to get off unshorn, and to save one's own skin?



In what are juveniles actually interested who come into contact with us, with church and sport? Which interests have we as officials and functionaries within both areas? "There are today" - so I read recently - "two kinds of herdsmen: those who are interested in wool, and those who are interested in the meat. Nobody is interested in the sheep." Also in church and sport there are today lots of herdsmen - though they do not deserve this name, hirelings, irresponsible and "paid farmhands" who want to enjoy themselves immensely; who cultivate themselves; who present themselves. They are only busy with feathering their nest. They consider how one can "exploit" other men; finally they turn skin and hide into cash yet. They distinguish themselves at the expense of others, and degrade them as means of their own self-realization. Does that not also apply to some honourable coaches and functionaries? Does that not also apply to some honourable ministers? But wherever this attitude is suspected or felt - whether in church or sport - there something will break in man, especially in young persons; there one feels no longer well in one's skin; there one can only draw a parting line for one's own sake; there one is - one would almost like to say: thank God! - again on the way, searching for someone, for a community where one can simply be there; where one knows oneself accepted; where one is loved; where one feels well. I cannot live on programs, on training plans, also not on religious training plans. I can only live where one says to me: "How good that you are there!"

Everybody of us (also the young people whose absences we deplore) has made such experiences. Nobody can clear her/himself of the suspicion to act "out of interest"; to degrade other people as means of one's own fulfilment. But everybody of us does also long to be accepted, to be allowed simply to be there, without having to prove one's right to exist by a performance result.

How then does the way look, the saving "way out"? Perhaps the view into our text from St Luke's gospel will help us more than the many intelligent words and analyses we have heard in this conference. There ten sick people came to Jesus. They asked for healing, stretched themselves out on the ground, as if they were one with the dust, with the impurity and plainness of the earth. Jesus turned to them. He looked at them full of love. And he demanded of them to turn back to people. And while they went they became pure. In the fact that human beings by their confidence in this Jesus, whom they had met for the first time and who had looked at them, began to feel well again in their skins and recovered their courage to let themselves be seen before others - therein lies the miracle of the healing! It was done by Jesus' loving view. In his nearness it did no longer hurt to come into contact with people. The untouchable, the excluded found back into the human community. They had not to submit themselves neither to him nor to any regulation.



But our story has still another aspect. Certainly, it shows how essential the loving look, the devotion is. But we are only then completely "healed" and "liberated", when we at the same time thank for it. "One of the ten healed men turned back and praised God with loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him." This man had understood - by his own body - that his healing was not something that was legally recoverable. It was something undeserved, yes, something that cannot be merited. He acknowledged that life is not primarily our own performance, but that it is a gift, a present, a "grace". Only in this instant he "was healed" in the actual sense: of his mental illness, of his being included in himself, of the actual "leprosy". For that he thanked Jesus: "How good that you are there! You have given back to me my life. What I am, I am by you!"

Have we still a sensorium, a perception organ for this kind of thinking, for this side of the human being? Do we still want and are we still able to acknowledge that we depend on others, on good people, on friends answering for us and loving us - although we are unable to "return" for it, or need not "reciprocate" for it? Do we see the engagement, the friendship, the love of others as something natural, as legal title? We will be saved from ourselves and released only by gratitude. Only so we will become true human beings, for whom other people are not competitors whom I have to ward off in order to save my skin, but people who help me to become I myself. Only then, only by this gratitude we will be able to be happy. Only the grateful can rejoice.

How is it with that in church and sport today? Who has the most influence - the "show-offs" of mankind or the "heroes of the work", the "heroes of the sport"? Do we cultivate only the professionals within both areas, while the "misera plebs" can or must go to the dogs? Christianity at least started under a different law. It started by no means under the law "to eat and to be eaten", under a success thinking for which only those are of value who can refer to a presentable performance. The central word of Christian life is and remains "grace" - as much as this word, and the reality meant with it, is darkened by the doings of Christians.

I am sure that the world of today's sport can hardly be characterized by the word "grace". In my opinion the way how modern sport, especially top-performance sports, sees itself, does in no way correspond to the Christian view of sport. But if in the first place the law of the presentable performance does matter, if success is decisive, then there is necessarily connected with it that many, yes, most people will intuitively, instinctively (although they have not the appropriate concept for the facts) turn their back on sport. The fact that many who turned once their back on sport find in later years the way back to sport for the sake of their health is no contradiction to it. In my opinion the differences in the motivation are obvious.



Which advice, which "reminder" can I give at the end to us - I remind of it that the "literary form" of my remarks wants to be "paraenesis", hence encouraging, admonishing speech that exaggerates for clarity's sake, yes, that has even to exaggerate - that is to us managers, officials and functionaries in church and sport, in view of the fact that many young persons are looking elsewhere for their luck, their sense of life, their welfare? From this given fact, or from the young people - to say it with a subordinate theme of our conference -, we are first to learn something: we are to let us be asked from them whether the world, the environment that we are to offer to them in sport and church, whether our life-style that we present to them do give the first place to the moment of the personal, of devotion, of confidence, of love, of "grace"; whether we do relativize the principle "success" in church and sport, i.e. take away the high value that it has got in our society. "Success is none of the names of God" - this sentence of Martin Buber we should always bear in mind. By no means we may meet young people with this 'principle success', or even measure them by it. With logical consistency we would eventually degrade them to a means of our own self-realization. In our neighbourhood everybody should be allowed to feel well in her/his skin; in our neighbourhood she/he may not have the feeling to be "leprous", to be "left out", but to be accepted and loved: "How good that you are there!" (J. Pieper) We can live and be happy as human beings only by that certainty.

Bad Segeberg, 15 January 1984

P. Alois Koch SJ