CSU basketball player keeps ‘Big Man’ at center

Julie Filby

When Caitlin Duffy, 20, spoke with the Denver Catholic Register Feb. 18, it was shortly before she boarded a charter flight from Fort Collins to Boise. There she and Colorado State teammates would take on Boise State in women’s basketball.

Duffy, who leads the team in free throws and the conference in three-pointers, went on to score 11 points in the Ram’s 71-51 victory, further sealing their first-place position in the Mountain West and achieving a record-breaking amount of wins in conference action (13-2 in MW and 21-5 overall as of Feb. 24).

Despite a jam-packed schedule that includes travel, games, practices, meetings, classes, homework and everything else demanded of a college athlete, Duffy has kept things in perspective and remained strong in her faith with support from her family, her team and Varsity Catholic, a division of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

“Coming to college was a big adjustment for me, I was really nervous,” she said. “Finding Varsity Catholic was life-changing … it’s really been what’s kept me going a lot of times because there are so many ups and down with coming to college, and then balancing that with playing a Division I (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sport.”

Varsity Catholic was launched in 2007 at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as an outreach to student-athletes offering Bible studies, one-on-one mentoring and other events.

“It’s extremely difficult for athletes to live out their faith due to time restraints, pressures and temptations that can come with their platform,” said Thomas Wurtz, director. The organization seeks to “develop the complete athlete,” he said, and beyond that, impact the wider industry.

“We believe collegiate athletics is the springboard to the entire world of sport which is a $400 billion industry in the U.S. alone,” he continued. “Athletes are some of the most influential men and women on their campuses, and will continue to be so in society after they graduate.”

Duffy, a native of Rapid City, S.D. and one of eight children to Karrie and Dan Duffy, welcomes the chance to share her faith when the opportunity arises.

“It all starts with developing relationships,” she said. “I could not be with a better group of girls and I think this, especially at this point in the season, is one thing that sets teams apart: we really are great friends on and off the floor; we love to be together, to play together and really push each other.”

As those relationships have developed, some teammates—Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and even those identifying as atheist—have started to ask questions about faith.

“It’s been so cool for me,” said Duffy. “Because at times I think all athletes … with sports playing such an important role in their lives wonder: How does this fit in?

“My faith is the foundation of everything I do,” she continued. “And one of the biggest things for me this year is beginning to share that with the girls on my team and other athletes at CSU.”

Christina Wirth, 26, a former professional basketball player in Europe and Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Indiana Fever, is the first full-time Varsity Catholic missionary on the CSU campus. She mentors members of not only the women’s basketball team, but also the swimming and diving and volleyball teams.

“I understand the demanding schedule these girls have,” Wirth said, adding that it’s important for her to meet them “where they’re at”—to ask about their lives, listen to them and develop bonds of trust.

“I work with a varied group, a lot of non-Catholics as well,” she added. “It’s really beautiful.”

Nationwide Varsity Catholic has 22 full-time missionaries, who were all college athletes themselves, on 15 campuses; plus another 43 part-time missionaries at 28 additional campuses. Last semester, some 550 student-athletes were involved in Varsity Catholic Bible studies.

“We prepare the athletes to be effective leaders; to be someone that young people and peers can look up to,” Wurtz said. “We really try to help them live their faith in that ‘real life’ environment.”

For more information, visit www.varsitycatholic.org.

Varsity Catholic | By the Numbers
Missionaries nationwide: 65
Campuses nationwide: 43
Student-athletes in Bible study last semester: 550

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.