Get to know: Pat Kelly, S.J., ’83, helping the Vatican help athletes

Pat Kelly, right, with Patrick Kelly, S.J. ’83 has long been invested in sports, from playing them at a high level as a youth and in college to writing and teaching about them.

He’s now taking his passion to a higher calling, as he recently was part of an international summit on sports and accessibility at the Vatican from Sept. 29-30. Kelly chaired a session titled “Accessible” at the summit in Rome.

He also helped write the declaration that attendees signed at the end of the summit, in the presence of Pope Francis. 

“The timing of the conference was significant,” Kelly said. “It was held as we are coming out of a global pandemic, which has been a context for many people to reflect in a new way on the meaning of their lives and relationship to work. 

Pope Francis greets Pat Kelly, S.J.“The conference was an invitation to this kind of reflection, as well — on the human significance of sport and its values and what we want sport to be in the future. Several speakers spoke about the important role sport has played and can play in societies.” 

Kelly introduced the theme of accessibility during his session and had the honor of introducing Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who spoke about the extent of the refugee crisis and how important it was to provide them with opportunities such as sports. 

“He emphasized how playing sports can help to provide refugees with an experience of belonging, at a time when they have had to flee their own country and everything they knew,” Kelly recalled. “Playing sports they enjoy and are familiar with also puts them back in touch with ordinary life and helps them temporarily to let go of the uncertainty and anxiety that characterize so much of their lives.” 

Sports have also played a significant role in Kelly’s life. 

He grew up in nearby Redford Township, playing football and basketball at St. Valentine’s and later at Bishop Borgess High School. He excelled on the gridiron particularly, playing collegiately at Grand Valley State University, where he was a team captain, All-Conference free safety and one of the leading punt returners in the nation. 

As his college playing career was winding down, and after having some important spiritual experiences and wanting to learn more about his Catholic faith, he came to the conclusion that perhaps he should set aside sports. 

It was a losing battle for Kelly. 

“I had been too profoundly shaped by my participation in sports, both for good and for ill, and this human formation was impacting my attempts to live the Christian life in my 20s,” he said. 

He realized then that sports had always been part of his fabric, and they weren’t going anywhere. 

“When I made the Spiritual Exercises retreat as a Jesuit novice, I was invited to pray over how God has been present in the whole of my life,” he said. “This brought me back into touch with my experiences participating in sports when I was younger. 

“Since then, most of my assignments in the Jesuits have involved working in relation to this area of culture in one way or another.” 

Following his playing career at GVSU, Kelly finished his undergraduate studies in 1983 at University of Detroit, graduating with a Religious Studies degree from the University. 

He now is an associate professor of Religious Studies at Detroit Mercy, joining in 2021, and teaches a course on Sport and Spiritual Traditions. Kelly also taught a similar course at his previous institution, Seattle University, where he resided for 13 years.

Since publishing his first book in 2012, Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times, Kelly has been regularly asked by leaders of Vatican offices to help when they engage with sport as an aspect of culture. 

“I have given lectures and facilitated break-out sessions at other conferences, sponsored by the Vatican in Rome, Brussels, United States,” Kelly said. “I never envisioned my work on sport taking this turn, but it is very meaningful to be able to contribute to the Church in whatever small ways I can during the papacy of Francis, a fellow Jesuit whom I greatly admire.”

Kelly said that the declaration signed by all participants in the presence of Pope Francis pointed out that in the context of excesses that accompany sport when it is purely profit and performance driven, a chasm has developed in many parts of the world between elite and “grass roots” sport.

As he put it, “There was a call for ‘cohesion’ and a ‘unitary’ vision of sport that allows all participants in sport to recognize one another as being involved in a common human endeavor.”

The declaration also called for sport to be accessible to all who want to participate, with barriers removed.

“According to the declaration, sport should be tailored to each person, adaptable to their needs, limitations and potential,” Kelly said. “Allowing them to enjoy developing their talents in such a way that also fosters their health and well-being.” 

The experience of being part of the international summit was special for Kelly, who had the opportunity to stay at Santa Marta, where Pope Francis lives. Kelly had the opportunity to visit and greet the Pope as well. 

“He took the time to greet and shake the hands of all of the participants,” Kelly said of the Pope at the conference. “When I met him, I spoke in Spanish and thanked him for his life and vocation. I also asked him to bless my parents at this time in their lives. 

“It was a very concrete and moving experience of what he emphasizes the Church needs to be: close to people and walking with them on the journey of life.”

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