Sunday, September 07, 2014

Love and Conflict

Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in "When the Game Stands Tall."

The real Bob Ladouceur.

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 7, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2014]

“When the Game Stands Tall” is a recently released movie that stars Jim Caviezel.  (He’s the man who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”; he’s also one of the stars of the current TV series, “Person of Interest”.)

In this film—which is based on a true story—Caviezel plays a high school football coach and theology teacher named Bob Ladouceur.  From 1979 to 2012, Bob Ladouceur was the head coach at De La Salle, a Catholic high school located in Concord, California.  Year in and year out, his teams were ranked among the best in the entire country.  Not surprisingly, several future NFL stars played at De La Salle under Coach Ladouceur—among them Amani Toomer (who played for the New York Giants) and Aaron Taylor (who played for my team, the Green Bay Packers).

But Bob Ladouceur’s most impressive football accomplishment occurred from 1992 to 2004 when he coached his teams to an incredible, unbelievable, ABSOLUTELY ASTOUNDING 151 straight victories—by far the longest winning streak for any football team (high school, college or pro) in history!

The movie begins, ironically enough, as the streak is about to come to an end.  Ladouceur is leading his team from the locker room onto the field for the state championship game (which would end up being the last of his 151 victories), and a reporter comes up to him with a microphone to do a quick interview.  At one point as they’re walking along the reporter says, “So, [Coach] how long do you think you can keep the streak alive?”

That was what the reporter was interested in; that’s what most fans were interested in.

Ladouceur answers by saying, without any hesitation whatsoever, “The streak was never our goal.”

And that’s what’s so interesting about this story.  It’s evident from the very beginning that Bob Ladouceur’s focus was never primarily on winning (although he certainly enjoyed the experience of winning!  Who doesn’t?).  

His primary focus was on teaching his players THE TRUTH—in particular the truth that St. Paul speaks of in today’s second reading from Romans 13 when he says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This is why, when Jim Caviezel was asked in a recent interview what made Bob Ladouceur’s football program so special at De La Salle, he answered with one word: “Love.”

And here Caviezel was talking about real love—not the flimsy, superficial, emotional version of love that our culture glorifies at the present time, but the real deal.

It becomes clear in the movie that this was is Ladouceur never went on to coach at a higher level, even though he received job offers from Stanford University and other places.

He believed he could have the greatest influence on young men of high school age.  He believed that he could teach them to love one another with the selfless, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ more effectively than he could teach young men of college age or in professional football.

So he sacrificed the big bucks in order to teach teenagers how to love and how to live.  He did that in his theology class; he did it on the football field—and he did it by his own personal example of self-sacrifice.

All of which makes for a really good story: a really good story which also happens to be true!

Needless to say, I highly recommend this movie!  So do many other people, including basketball Hall-of-Famer Jerry West, who said (and here I quote), “I would recommend this movie to all parents who have kids participating in sports—regardless of what level.”

Which includes almost every parent I know.  Very few young people these days do NOT participate in sports.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this text about love from Romans 13 is paired up with this gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 18—because it, too, is about real love (although interestingly enough the word “love” is not found anywhere in the reading).

The gospel is specifically about dealing with interpersonal conflict—something the De La Salle players had to learn to do, especially after they lost a few games!

But that’s to be expected, because in this imperfect world love and conflict are not mutually exclusive realities.  In fact, we sometimes have our deepest conflicts with the people we love the most!

As the old saying goes, “You always hurt the one you love.”

Jesus says here: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” 

That statement, believe it or not, is really challenging our love: our love of neighbor.  

Jesus is actually saying to us here: “When you have a conflict with a brother or sister that’s rooted in their sin, do you LOVE that person enough to go directly to him or her to try to work things out and get reconciled?”

Many do not love in that way, as we all know.  They have a problem with their boss—they get mistreated by him—and they talk to everyone else about it except their boss; they have a problem with their pastor, and they talk to everyone else about it except their pastor; they have a problem with a relative, and they talk about it with all their relatives—except the one they actually have the conflict with!

Jesus goes on to say: “If [you do go to your brother and] he does not listen, take one or two others along with you … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”

That’s another statement which challenges our love.  

Jesus is saying to us: “When you have a conflict with another person that’s rooted in their sin, and you try to work it out with them directly but nothing positive happens, do you LOVE them enough to persevere in your efforts at reconciliation by getting appropriate help from other people?”

Or do you throw in the towel and give up?

As Catholic Christians, we’re never supposed to give up; we’re never supposed to “close the door” entirely on a relationship (unless, of course, it’s a sinful relationship!).

Yes, we may have to step back from the relationship for a time and avoid the other person’s company because all our attempts at reconciliation have been rejected—which is basically what Jesus means here when he says that after all these other overtures fail we should treat the person “like a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

But at the same time we must continue to pray and to hope for a positive change—and be open to any future opportunities for reconciliation that might present themselves.

That’s real love.  That’s the kind of real, Christ-centered love that Bob Ladouceur tried to teach to his football players at De La Salle High School for more than thirty years.  And if you listen to what many of his former players say about him and about the positive impact he had on their lives, it seems that to a great extent he succeeded.

Of course the big challenge for all of us—for those former players and for you and for me—is to infuse this kind of love into our lives every day.

If you’re like me and like the rest of the human race, you sometimes succeed and you sometimes fail.

But that’s why we’re here at Mass, is it not?  (Or at least it should be why we’re here!)

We’re not here because we love others perfectly; we’re here (hopefully) because we want to love others more perfectly in the future than we have in the past.

Lord Jesus, help us to do that by the power of your grace each and every day, so that we and all those we are called to love will WIN—not 151 straight football games—but rather the one and only prize that really matters: ETERNAL LIFE WITH YOU!  Amen.