At Benedictine College, Evangelizing Athletes Begins with Personal Connection

Football players from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., Joe Green and Connor Waymire along with Father Ryan Richardson, wrestler Ryan Gainer and football player Carter Schultz, visit New York City for a Holy Week mission trip April 1, 2024. (Photo: OSV News/courtesy Father Ryan Richardson)

By Jack Figge, OSV News

ATCHISON, Kan. (OSV News) — Benedictine College welcomed 19 young men and women into the Catholic Church on Divine Mercy Sunday, 17 of whom were student athletes.

It’s an impressive feat as the Catholic college turns its attention to finding new ways to evangelize athletes.

Campus chaplain Father Ryan Richardson has been trying to find new ways to evangelize student athletes at the college for the past two years. Ranked a top Catholic college by the Newman Guide, Benedictine has over 2,000 students, of whom about 800 are student athletes — half of whom are not Catholic. The guide is produced by the Cardinal Newman Society, which seeks to recognize model Catholic colleges in the United States.

“Most students come to Benedictine because of the Catholic identity of the college,” Father Richardson told OSV News. “If you’re playing a sport, they’re aware that this is a Catholic school. But maybe the primary reason why they decided to come to Benedictine is that they have a scholarship to play a sport, and they’re open to learning about the faith, but they’ve never really been exposed to it.”

Two years ago, various student athletes approached the priest, asking if he would say a Mass for the team or lead a prayer service. Father Richardson happily agreed, and quickly saw an opportunity for growing the school’s outreach to student athletes.

To launch the program, he recruited the help of Athletic Director Charlie Gartmeyer and Catholic speakers Andrew and Sarah Swafford, both of whom played sports at Benedictine College and reside in Atchison.

When Andrew Swafford played football at Benedictine College, he realized that there were many spiritual lessons participating in sports can teach an athlete, and practicing the faith gives them something to focus on after they hang up the cleats.

“These formation opportunities help athletes connect the dots between the discipline of their physical training and the discipline of their spiritual and their moral life,” said Swafford, a theology professor at Benedictine. “Once they connect that faith is something to be lived off the field and not as an end in itself, but as something that is part of the formation of the human person, they will find so much more fulfillment after college.”

The keystone for this evangelization framework has been the creation of spiritual captains for each team. Shortly after students began requesting individual formation opportunities for the teams, Father Richardson developed the idea for spiritual captains.

“Each of the teams has a few spiritual captains that are elected by the team. They’re in charge of taking the spiritual pulse of the team, getting in contact with me if they want to do a Mass, or sometimes they’re in charge of leading a Bible study on the team, leading prayers before after practices and games,” Father Richardson said.

Aside from organizing faith-related activities for the teams, the captains receive an abundance of formation experiences tailored toward their position as spiritual leaders. Once a month, the Swaffords host the spiritual captains at their house for a talk, prayer and an evening of community building.

For Charlie Louree, a senior on the lacrosse team, being a spiritual captain has given him a community that encourages him to preach the Gospel to his teammates, even when it is difficult.

“Being involved with the spiritual captains has helped me to relate to so many other captains that are trying to show their teammates that Christ should be at the center of their lives,” Louree said. “I no longer felt alone in that aspect of my faith, which was huge because it gave me a great sense of community, and I have met so many great friends.”

Shortly after the group formed, it became more than a monthly prayer group; the captains became friends with one another, and they began gathering together outside of scheduled meetings.

“What we’ve seen is just a lot of crossover between the sports teams. We have a spiritual captains group text, and it’s so nice to see when people will throw out that they are all playing sand volleyball this afternoon,” Sarah Swafford told OSV News. “To see all these different people encouraging one another or gathering with each other to do praise and worship … they just really like to spend time together.”

When they host additional events, the captains do not just keep it to themselves: They invite their teammates to come along, providing athletes with the opportunity to meet and spend time with other players trying to pursue their faith. Julie Calzonetti, a junior at Benedictine, began serving as the spiritual captain for the volleyball team a year ago. The group has helped her form lifelong friendships.

“As we have developed structure as a group, we have also all grown in friendship and support of each other on campus,” Calzonetti said. “I have established amazing, like-minded friendships with the spiritual captains from other teams, friends I most likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to bond with and grow in relationship with otherwise.”

The spiritual captains program is one that will keep giving. The skills these spiritual captains learn will stay with them as they enter their professional lives, equipping them with evangelization techniques and practical ways to preach the Gospel.

“They are learning how to bring Christ into their community. So they’re getting great practice and training for the future,” Andrew Swafford said. “For me, it’s just been beautiful to watch their spiritual lives and their fellowship and friendship together grow — and then to watch them invite people into that is so inspiring.”

For Father Richardson, the spiritual captains program is simply the beginning of this ministry. As a priest, he takes his role as a spiritual father seriously. Throughout the week, he tries to spend time with each sports team, meeting the players and leading the team in prayer.

“During the football season, for example, I’m out there every Tuesday and give a brief talk after practice. The morning before a game, we have a 20-minute prayer service. And I’m on the sidelines for all the games. I read a prayer at the end of the game,” Father Richardson said. “It has given me a chance to know all of these guys and just get to be present to them, which is the foundation for evangelization.”

During his freshman year, these encounters with Father Richardson eventually led sophomore Connor Waymire to begin the process of becoming Catholic. Now, as a spiritual captain, Waymire appreciates Father Richardson’s presence and the ways that Benedictine incorporates the faith into athletics.

“While preparing for a game, it is difficult to focus on anything other than football, which causes the tendency to leave God out of my life in that moment,” Waymire said. “Father Ryan being there for games and practices and all the opportunities to incorporate faith into the game really helps to encourage all of us to remember that through the hardships of sports, the Lord is there for us.”

Through witnessing the example of the spiritual captains and conversing with Father Richardson and teammates, more and more student athletes are inquiring about the faith and beginning the process of becoming Catholic. The key to this successful evangelization lies in extending invitations.

“The power of the invite has to be a personal encounter. So for me, I spend a lot of time with the student athletes, so I build a personal relationship with the guys, and their spiritual captains build personal relationships with them,” Father Richardson said. “It’s not about random meetings and it is not just a numbers game. But it begins with a personal connection and inviting them into the faith.”