It reads like a sappy script for a made-for-TV movie. A small school that hasn’t won a championship in half a century goes on a Cinderella tear and makes it to the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The school is Catholic and coached by a Catholic-educated man who reminds every television interviewer that it is by the grace of God that he is able to do the work he does and whatever success the team has is to God’s credit. And the team chaplain is an elderly nun who turns in scouting reports, leads the team in prayer, and lectures the players on sportsmanship.
The thing is, this isn’t a script, but real life. And at the center of all the trip to the championship is Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt of Loyola University Chicago.
Sister Jean, as she is known on campus, has gone viral. You can see videos of her being interviewed on every major American television network. She is in all the newspapers, on radio and all over social media.
But don’t get the idea Sister Jean is just an overnight sensation. She has been a member of the religious order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin (BVM) for 81 years and served at Loyola for more than 50 years. For the past decade, she has been the chaplain of the Loyola Men’s Basketball Team, nicknamed the Ramblers (the mascot is a wolf and a wolf is the image of a Rambler). These days, Sister Jean is sporting full Ramblers regalia.
By the way, Sister Jean is 98 years old.
Sister went viral because the team really has experienced a Cinderella season, racking up a 32-5 record, winning the Missouri Valley Conference and surviving to the last four standing in the NCAA tournament that started with 128 teams. They won their first three games by a total of four points before rolling up a 16-point margin of victory in their fourth game of the tournament.
“Sport is a universal language, which brings peoples close and can contribute to having individuals meet and overcome conflicts,” Pope Francis reflected during his general audience on April 6, 2016.
The Holy Father’s universal prayer intention for August 2016 was, “That sports may be an opportunity for friendly encounters between peoples and may contribute to peace in the world.”
This past December, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, explained that sports bring three lessons that can be applied in the broader context:
- A tool for human development: “The Church has often used the metaphor of sportsmanship as an image of maturation.”
- Integration and international solidarity: “Sport…constitutes a tool to educate people about the importance of sharing, friendship and respecting others, as of the immense value of solidarity.”
- Overcome economic interests and selfishness: “in sport, as in life, competing for the result is important, but playing well and fairly is even more important!” (Pope Francis, 2016)
“In our day, we seem to place much more emphasis on the final outcome of our efforts rather than on the journey to reach our goals,” Archbishop Jurkovic said. “Most people seem to give more value to the goals in themselves with little attention to the important and essential steps indispensable to achieve them.
“Nevertheless, most of us understand that reaching an objective requires training, practice, hard work, and much determination and dedication.”
In Loyola’s case, Sister Jean is putting a Catholic face on the NCAA Tournament. And she makes no apologies about being a partisan fan: “I ask God to be especially good to Loyola so that, at the end of the game, the scoreboard indicates a big ‘W’ for us. These kids play with their hearts and their heads because they love their school and because they love basketball.”
In addition to going viral, Sister Jean has created a huge demand for “Sister Jean” t-shirts, other apparel and even bobblehead dolls. Several dozen products are rushing to market.
Someone with a different outlook on life might have seen this as an opportunity to cash in financially on the sudden name recognition. But Sister Jean gave the university permission to sign the licensing agreements; royalties will go to the Loyola Athletic Fund.
Sister Jean asked nothing for herself, but portions of bobblehead sales will go to her Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.