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Part of the St. Agatha-St. James parish, Penn's Newman Center has pioneered an Athletic Speaker Series and brought in Dean Eric Furda as its first speaker.

Credit: Cindy Chen

Community is a part of humanity. 

The Penn Catholic Newman Center has not abandoned this fact of life, despite facing the innumerable challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic. 

In fact, the Newman Center is taking advantage of the times to integrate the communities of athletics and faith. The newly organized Athletic Speaker Series invites speakers, former college athletes, referees, and avid sports fans alike to speak about the intersection of athletics and faith in their own lives. 

Penn’s Newman Center is a part of the St. Agatha-St. James parish, which was originally established in 1850. The idea to create the Athletic Speaker Series belongs to Father Remigio Morales, one of the parish's chapel fathers.

The Newman Center is partnered with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, also known as FOCUS, which sends its missionaries to college campuses across the nation to spread the gospel to college students.

One of these FOCUS missionaries is Molly Bent, who was assigned to Penn’s campus just after graduating from the University of Connecticut earlier in 2020.

Bent is a former athlete, having played basketball for the stories Huskies program from 2017-20. Through her seasons at UConn, Bent struggled with playing time and began to doubt herself. She felt as though she was failing her team by not accomplishing much on the court. As these negative emotions piled up, Bent leaned more heavily into her faith.

“The experience that I had with FOCUS in college just completely transformed my life,” Bent said. “It gave me so much fulfillment and so much joy. It brought something out in me that I didn’t even know was in there.”

Following her college experience, Bent decided to become a FOCUS missionary, and she belongs to a subgroup called Varsity Athlete, which seeks to aid athletes with the problems specific to their college experience. 

“It’s really important to have a community around you that loves you no matter what and isn’t going to judge you based on how well you played in your last game,” Bent said.

Though Bent’s mission on Penn’s campus began during the pandemic, not an ideal time to say the least, she is making the most of her time here.

Soon after arriving, Father Remi, as he is known, approached Bent with the idea of the Athletic Speaker Series. Bent immediately was attached to the idea and took it from there, enlisting other enthusiastic Penn athletes to help find speakers, organize the series, and get other athletes to attend.

“Our goal is to create a community for athletes to be more confident in their faith and have a space to talk with their fellow athletes on the joys and the struggles of being an athlete at Penn,” Bent said.

The Newman Center’s ties with Penn Athletics were sparked by former linebacker Pat McInerney, who organized a weekly Bible study for himself and fellow football players. As Father Remi and the football team bonded, the parallels between faith and athletics became more obvious.

Though McInerney graduated in 2018, his role was filled by his younger sister Catherine McInerney, a junior on the field hockey team, and other football players like sophomore linebacker Grant Ristoff. The group involved in the Newman Center has quickly grown to encompass many more sports than just the football team.

“I wanted to do something that really connected athletes and spirituality because those are two really huge parts of my life,” Ristoff said. “I wanted to do something that could connect our school and Drexel, the athletes there. Sometimes you get caught up in your sports bubble, and I wanted to reach out to other groups.” 

The younger McInerney and Ristoff recognize the essential aspect of community and are grateful for their athletic communities. Both of them remarked how much athletics plays an integral part in their college experience. 

“Oh, man. For me, I couldn’t picture college without playing a sport,” McInerney said. “I think that family, especially when you’re beginning college, is so important. I’ve been lucky to be on it.”

In October, the Athletic Speaker Series hosted its first guest speaker, Dean Eric Furda, who will soon depart from the Penn community. Furda, whose sports’ fandom is well-documented, centered his discussion on competition and how athletes could fiercely compete while keeping Christian values.

He also touched on common challenges facing college athletes, such as how to incorporate faith into a busy schedule, how to find the appropriate balance between humility and pride, or how to balance one’s devotion to athletics, faith, family, academics, and more. Importantly, Furda illustrated how faith and sport work in conjunction, as one can use faith to strengthen one’s athletic determination and vice-versa. 

The general format of the meeting is geared towards forming connections. The sessions begin with a short talk by the speaker on a specific parallel faith and sports, after which participants go into smaller breakout rooms to get to know each other and react to the talk. Finally, the meeting ends with a quick Q&A and group prayer. 

Future speakers on the slate include Deacon Steve Javie, a former NBA referee, Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, a former professional soccer player turned minister, and Samantha Kelly, a former UConn soccer player who now runs a non-profit organization called FIERCE Athlete.

The series also dreams of hosting speakers such as former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and WNBA star Maya Moore, who are both vocal about the role faith plays in their athletic mindset.

The Athletics Speaker Series plays a pivotal role in building and uniting communities. This function is especially important during the pandemic as some freshman athletes have yet to even meet their teammates in person. 

Luckily for rookies like Justin Iler of track and field and Joseph Wilbur of men's lightweight rowing, the series has offered the opportunity to connect with Penn athletes through their common interests in sports and faith.

Though faith and the competitive spirit may run counter to each other at times, maintaining faith in athletics can certainly bring out the best in sports. Faith teaches discipline, an understanding of others, sportsmanship, and instills a resolve to succeed.

“Even though this is out of our Catholic Newman Center, it’s for all athletes,” Bent said. “It’s very much about the Christian faith, but we welcome anyone. Even if faith isn’t a big place in your life, I think the topics discussed can help any athlete in any walk of life.”

Though the Athletic Speaker Series began during quarantine, it's really just getting started. Once the pandemic subsides, its sponsors are excited to switch from virtual to in-person meetings, in addition to hosting other social events such as barbecues, group service opportunities, or casual hangouts featuring ultimate Frisbee.

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