A Jesuit priest reflects on the value and spirituality of sports

Paulist Press Timothy Walch reviews the book “Play, Sport and Spirit” by Father Patrick Kelly, SJ.

By Tim Walch
Book Review

A review of “Play, Sport, and Spirit.” By Fr. Patrick Kelly, SJ. Paulist Press, 2023. 171 pp. $29.95


“I always enjoyed playing sports,” writes Father Patrick Kelly in the first sentence of this interesting and complex book. Like many of us, Father Kelly first gravitated to sports in his youth. He en­joyed nu­merous games with family and friends and played on football and basketball teams in high school and college.

But sports had a greater purpose for Father Kelly — a spiritual purpose. “I can see in retrospect,” he admits, “that throwing the ball against the wall or shooting baskets as a boy were akin to meditation for me. Sports also provided a context for me to reflect on life and its meaning.”


That connection started Father Kelly on a journey leading to his vocation as a Jesuit priest. Today he teaches religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy and explores the philosophical and theological connection between sports, play and the Spirit.

This new book is something of a sequel. In 2012, he published a history entitled “Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times” (Paulist Press). Both books are the distillation of many years of research, writing and lecturing on sports, theology and spirituality.

In “Play, Sport, and Spirit,” Father Kelly gives us a brief but serious analysis of the thoughts of great philosophers, theologians and sociologists on the importance of play and relaxation in a well-rounded life. Readers will find extensive analysis of the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, Fritjohf Bergman and Johan Huizinga, among others.

Father Kelly organizes his book into six broad chapters that define sport, discuss the historical and theological conditions of play and sport, and reflect on the evolution, freedom and joy of playing sports. Each chapter is subdivided with useful subtitles. “Play, Sport, and Spirit” also includes a substantial section of end notes and an index.

In general, Father Kelly has written this book for scholars and teachers. Sports fans, nonetheless, will find value in these pages. “Father Kelley has given us a book to be taken to heart by all those sports lovers who have always thought that this wonderful human activity was worth pursuing for its own sake,“ writes Mark Nesti, a prominent sports psychologist. “Scholarly yet accessible, this work shows how a Catholic understanding of sports rests on a spirit of play — holistic, creative, and full of joy.”

Toward the end of the book, Father Kelly reflects on the connectivity — or “flow” as he calls it — between playing sports and life values. “Flow experiences that young people have while playing sports tell them something about themselves and what they long for: joy that is experienced as they immerse themselves in meaningful activities with intrinsic rewards.” Among these meaningful activities are selfless service to others, the experience of love and friendship with other people and a sense of harmony with all creation.

“All for the greater glory of God” is the motto of the Jesuit order. Through his experiences as a high school and college athlete, his education as a Jesuit priest and his work as a theologian and philosopher, Father Kelly shows us how sports can contribute to that greater glory.

(Timothy Walch is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of The Catholic Messenger Board of Directors. He regularly reviews books for the Messenger and other publications and is the author of many books including “Irish Iowa,” 2019.)

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