In the rural region of Larrivière-Saint-Savin, France, about an hour’s drive from the Bay of Biscay, lies a medieval chapel dedicated to Our Lady.
Though the chapel’s exterior is small and unassuming, visitors may be surprised to see its curious interior decoration, including rows of rugby memorabilia and stained-glass windows depicting, among others, Mary holding the baby Jesus, who in turn is holding a rugby ball.
The chapel is now-aptly named Notre Dame du Rugby – Our Lady of Rugby.
The medieval structure was found abandoned in 1956 by a local parish priest, Fr. Michel Devert, who restored it three years later — with a rugby theme — after three local young rugby players were killed in a car accident.
The construction of the chapel was his way to honor the young boys, and to establish a spiritual center for fans of the region’s favorite sport, and indeed for rugby fans all over the world.
This year, hundreds of thousands of those fans have traveled to France to watch the Rugby World Cup, and some of them, no doubt, will be visiting the church to pray, to leave gifts in the form of rugby jerseys and memorabilia, or just out of a sense of curiosity.
A rugby primer
Americans may not have much familiarity with rugby, which is less popular in the United States than American football.
While the two sports may seem related at first glance, they are in reality very different.
Rugby, properly known as “Rugby football”, is named after the English school in the town of Rugby where, in 1823, one of the students is credited with “inventing” the game by picking up the ball during a football (soccer) match and running with it.
Unlike American football players, rugby players do not use any type of body armor or padding. In rugby, all players can handle the ball, but forward passing and blocking are forbidden. In rugby, play is continuous, whereas in American football it stops whenever the ball touches the ground.
American football is mostly played in North America, whereas rugby is a global sport, rivaling or even surpassing soccer in the nations which make up the British Isles, in large parts of France, and in many Southern Hemisphere nations, especially South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Polynesian islands of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.
The United States and Canada do have rugby teams, which have made some appearances at World Cup tournaments. But this year, USA missed out after conceding a last-second draw to Portugal, which saw the small European nation qualify for only the second time in its history.
Christianity has left its mark on both individual players and teams in the rugby world, in a number of prominent ways.
Group prayer is an integral part of the daily routines for the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby teams, some of which have team pastors. The Fijians have been known to write “Phil 4:13” on their jerseys, a reference to the Bible verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Former New Zealand international player Michael Jones, who famously refused to play on Sundays, was once asked how he squared his religious values with the ferocity of his tackles. He answered: “It is better to give than to receive.”
After a historic win over Australia on Sept. 17, the captain of the Flying Fijians, Waisea Nayacalevu, began his post-match press conference with the words: “First of all, we want to give our thanks to our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
The day before the Australia–Fiji match, many rugby fans were surprised to see the players from Wales walk onto the field against Portugal wearing black and yellow, instead of their habitual red and white. In a sport that lives and breathes tradition, this innovation seemed shocking.
It turned out, however, that the uniform was inspired by the colors of St. David’s flag, named after the 6th century bishop and patron saint of Wales.
The golden cross on a black field is often used as a Welsh symbol, flying next to the green and white national flag emblazoned with a red dragon.
In 2007 the Welsh Christian Party even campaigned to make it the national flag, claiming the dragon was a satanic symbol. The St. David flag was also used as an emblem by a Welsh regiment in the Second World War.
Scotland and England, of course, play in the blue-and-white and red-and-white of their respective flags of St. Andrew and St. George.
‘Useful in the spiritual life’
While rugby is known for its aggressive physical nature, New Zealand priest Fr. Antony Sumich, a former international player and coach who is now a member of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, told The Pillar that his faith has benefited greatly from the sport.
The priest was both a club player in New Zealand, and the coach of Croatia’s national rugby team.
“Rugby requires a lot of self-discipline and a selflessness of the individual to contribute to the greater good of the whole, and I think both these are very useful in the spiritual life,” he told The Pillar.
“Many of the best boxing trainers throughout time have been Catholic priests, because they recognized that discipline in a sport is something that men especially need, to get control of their strength, and physical prowess,” he said.
“Especially as we have become less agrarian as time goes on, they have to have an outlet for that physical drive, and rugby is always a good opportunity. You can look at a lot of other sports as well, but rugby is kind of unique, in that it is very, very selfless, and it is an amateur sport, and the bonds that develop in these physical team sports are very, very good for character building.”
In his own experience as a New Zealander, though with Croatian roots, Sumich said he has not experienced any conflict between Catholicism and rugby.
“In Auckland, where I live, the high school competition is one of the most cut-throat and hardest in the world at that level,” he said. “There are 16 teams, and eight of them are Catholic boys' schools. So yes, it is a big part of our schooling, even in Catholic schools. In New Zealand there are 24 Catholic clubs in 24 different towns around New Zealand, and they are all called “Marist clubs,” formed by boys who went to the Marist schools.”
Sumich also clarified that he does not find problematic the traditional Maori dances, or Haka, performed by New Zealand players before their matches.
“The Maori didn't have a written language prior to the arrival of the Europeans, so their history was passed on through song and dance. There are literally thousands of different hakas, because they tell historical stories, or they will explain or relate some things about the people telling the stories,” Fr. Sumich explained.
“The early missionaries in New Zealand, who were all fluent in the Maori language, were very much conscious of looking into all practices amongst the indigenous people and seeing what things were offensive to the Gospel, or not,” he continued.
“Cannibalism and multiple wives were obviously offensive, but there were many other things that they found very much neutral. Things like the haka would be an expression of someone's territory, someone's tribe, their history, their own story, or even an event that is currently happening, so there was no issue with that at all.”
While the New Zealand priest believes rugby can be a boon to one’s faith, he cautioned against praying for one’s team to win a match.
“You don't pray to God for something worldly, ever, and God isn't listening to prayers like that,” he said. “You've always got to keep the right balance as to what prayer is. It is primarily us thanking God, loving God, and honoring God, and one of the last things we do is that we petition God for those things that are good for our own salvation, and God's will being done, and the salvation of the world.”
He added that praying before a game for players to be safe and healthy, and for everyone to act “according to right reason” is a good thing to do.
Currently, there is no formal patron saint of rugby players. Some players in the sport have a devotion to St. Sebastian or St. Christopher.
However, Fr. Sumich suggested that Fr. Francis Douglas – a New Zealand rugby player turned priest and missionary during World War II – would be a good patron for the sport.
A rugby player in his youth, Douglas became a Columban priest who served in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
He was taken custody by the Japanese and questioned about the confessions he may have heard from guerilla fighters. When he would not violate the seal of confession, he was killed.
Although his cause for beatification is not currently open, Sumich said he thinks Douglas “would be a fantastic patron saint of rugby players.”