Just Being a Good Sport? Or Blasphemy? You Decide

We are now entering the 2013 football season. During the games of this season two seemingly innocuous, but nevertheless sacrilegious, puns are directed toward our Blessed Mother, the “heart” of the Holy Family. These commonly used little insults, namely the “Immaculate Reception” and the “Hail Mary pass,” will be paraded out in full force by sports commentators on television sets throughout the nation.

The term “Immaculate Reception” was coined following a December 23, 1972, divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. With only twenty-two seconds left, the Raiders were ahead by a single point. Franco Harris caught a game-winning touchdown pass that had bounced off another player just before the ball was about to hit the ground. This “miraculous” ending led to the infamous moniker called the Immaculate Reception, a play on the Immaculate Conception, the dogma proclaiming that the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ and the Son of God, was conceived without original sin.

The Immaculate Reception moniker was first used publicly by Myron Cope, a Pittsburgh sportscaster. He thought that changing Conception to Reception was not only clever but humorous as well. However, Cope was initially hesitant about using this on his show. Perhaps he was concerned how the Church Militant would respond to what could be interpreted as an insult, to this sacred dogma? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Church would not only have voiced abhorrence to such an insult, but would have demanded a public apology for such brazen behavior. The Catholic Church had moral authority back then, and mocking its dogmas could lead to serious repercussions. But this was 1972. A change in the Church’s ecumenical thinking was now in full swing. Cope might have recognized that the once Church Militant had now softened and was more concerned with embracing the world rather than standing forthrightly against those evils that were corrupting it. Whatever his thoughts might have been, Cope decided to take a chance. He used the term “Immaculate Reception” on his television show. It was not only well received, but has endured until this day. In fact, a statue of Franco Harris catching the “Immaculate Reception” pass is in the Pittsburgh International Airport for all to see.

In our upside down world, many would consider the changing of the Immaculate Conception to the Immaculate Reception as a harmless little joke. They would argue that poking a little fun at the Church and its beliefs is nothing to get alarmed over. Good sports recognize this and know how to “go along to get along,” rather than over-react to a little Catholic ribbing. The secularists would insist that people should not take their religion too seriously if they want to get along with others. After all, that is what being ecumenical is all about.

But there is another dimension to be considered. Would Jesus Christ consider the “Immaculate Reception” to be a harmless little joke? On the contrary, the Son of God most certainly considers it to be a serious insult to His Mother, who was conceived without original sin and brought Him into this world to save mankind? Over the centuries, Christ has repeatedly sent His Mother into this world, warning mankind about the chastisements that would be inflicted upon us if we failed to follow His laws. Does this sound like a God who would “laugh off” irreverent wordplay about the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth? How would He react to those who participate in this unholy charade, especially those of us who have been reared in the Catholic Faith and should know better?

Yes! The Immaculate Reception entered the world unscathed and even heralded by football enthusiasts across the country. It not only became an accepted part of American football folklore, but it opened the floodgates for other insults that would be directed toward Our Lady. Three years after the Immaculate Reception, on December 28, 1975, another playoff game took place between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were leading the Cowboys with only twenty four seconds remaining. The Cowboys had the ball at midfield. Roger Staubach, the Cowboy’s quarterback, threw a fifty yard pass that was caught for the winning touchdown. Staubach was interviewed by the press following the game. He was quoted as saying, “I got knocked down on the play….I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

Staubach, who is a practicing Catholic, meant no disrespect when he made this comment. In fact, he was probably earnest in seeking her assistance in his quest for this victory. However, it is unlikely that the secular press would have viewed it in this light. To them, the Hail Mary became the new moniker for every desperation pass thrown in the last few seconds of a football game in which the odds of winning were very small indeed. It is unlikely that they would have considered that the Hail Mary is a most revered prayer, the first part given by God Himself. Rather, the Hail Mary pass became the newly coined phrase to replace the “alley-oop” and the “long bomb” as the last ditch effort to win a football game. Like the Immaculate Reception, there were no complaints about the light-hearted way in which the Hail Mary was treated. The term caught on and continues to be used today.

To add insult to injury, the greatest Hail Mary pass that was ever thrown occurred on November 23, 1984. Boston College, a Catholic institution, played the University of Miami on this day. Boston College was losing the game with only six seconds remaining. Doug Flutie, their quarterback, threw a forty-eight yard desperation pass toward the end zone, which was caught for the winning touchdown. Again, the Hail Mary pass moniker was paraded out in full force in describing the play. In fact, Boston College commissioned the construction of a statue of Doug Flutie, who is a Catholic, commemorating his throwing of the pass that led to their victory. On the base of this statue, there is a sign referring to the Hail Mary pass in quotes. This statue is proudly displayed on the campus today. The Hail Mary moniker had become accepted and quite common since the Dallas Cowboy’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings nine years earlier. As a result, no one seemed concerned that treating the Angelic Salutation in this fashion could be viewed as sacrilegious to those inside the Catholic Church and scandalous to those outside of the Church.

While many would contend that the preceding is “no big deal,” the important point to consider is how Jesus Christ, the Son of Our Lady, would view this irreverence. What would He think about the Hail Mary prayer being treated in this regard? Would He view this as a harmless little usurpation to be ignored or “blown off” in the spirit of good sportsmanship? Concocting clever rationalizations and “going along to get along” will hardly be acceptable when God finally judges out true motives and the results of our actions.

Blasphemous language and behavior is sacrilegious. It shows contempt for God and His Church, thereby depriving Them of the sacredness to which They are entitled. The Hail Mary, which is an integral part of this Holy Tradition, is as follows: “Hail Mary. Full of Grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed are Thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God. Pray for our sinners. Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Think about these hallowed words and how they have now become associated with a forward pass, once called a “long bomb” by the secular media. Is this just a harmless act of good sportsmanship? Or is it blasphemy?

It is during the Fall, the football season, that we will hear the Immaculate Reception and Hail Mary pass monikers carelessly repeated over and over when a desperation pass is thrown and caught. In fact, the cavalier use of these sacred names has filtered down from not only the professional and college ranks, but to the high school level as well. Consider the following headlines, which recently appeared in the Sport sections of those newspapers covering high school football:

High school team Hail Mary: Escalon edges Pacheco with Hail Mary (Posted on 9/8/013 in USA by Belga News); Cameron the quarterback can’t keep relying on the Hail Mary Pass (Posted on 9/2/013 by The Telegraph); Hail Mary pass dubbed ‘Plain City Prayer’ leads to wild finish (Posted on 9/8/013 by MaxWire National Blog Covering High School in America).

Have we become so spiritually dulled that we fail to recognize that such mockery is an insult to God, His Mother, and the Mother of His Church, even though we may not directly intend it to be so? Cloaking our answer in rationalizations will only worsen the problem. The first step in correcting this insult is to call it by its rightful name. So for the final time, is this just being good sports? Or is it complicity in blasphemy? You Decide

Dear Blessed Mother, Queen of Heaven and Earth, forgive us for so carelessly disrespecting Your Holy Name.

* Current article adapted from No Prayers Allowed at the Game? Quarterly Magazine (2012) published in From The Housetops by The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Saint Benedict Center, Still River, Massachusetts 01467