Kobe Bryant dead at 41: How scandal turned him to Catholic faith and Divine Mercy

Catholic News Agency

LOS ANGELES, Calif.  — Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Southern California. Bryant, the father of four, was 41.

Bryant’s daughter Gianna, 13, was reportedly killed in the helicopter crash as well, along with another teen and her parent, and the helicopter’s pilot. They were reportedly traveling to a basketball game.

Bryant is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He retired in 2016 after a 20 year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, in which the shooting guard won five NBA championships, a league MVP award, two scoring championships, and myriad other distinctions.

Beyond basketball, Bryant was a husband and a father who in 2015 attributed his Catholic faith with helping him move past a challenging period in his own life and the life of his family.

Bryant was raised in a Catholic family, and spent much of his childhood living in Italy. He married in 2001 in a Southern California parish.

In 2003, Bryant was arrested after he was accused of raping a woman in a Colorado hotel room.

Bryant admitted a sexual encounter with the woman, but denied that he had committed sexual assault. When the allegation became public, Bryant lost sponsors and faced criminal charges, which were eventually dropped.

Bryant issued an apology to his accuser, with whom he also reached a settlement in a civil lawsuit.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter,” Bryant said in his 2004 apology.

In 2015, the basketball player told GQ that after the matter was resolved, he decided to shed some superficiality he felt he had built up in his public persona.

“What I came to understand, coming out of Colorado, is that I had to be me, in the place where I was at that moment.”

Bryant said it was a priest who helped him to make some important personal realizations during the ordeal.

Describing his fear of being sent to prison for a crime he believed he had not committed, Bryant told GQ that “The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest.”

“It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point,” Bryant said.

A 2004 decision to place deeper trust in God did not mean the basketball star’s life was thereafter without difficulties, or defined by virtue.

In 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce from Kobe, citing irreconcilable differences. But Bryant said he decided not to give up on his marriage, and two years later, his wife withdrew her divorce petition.

“I’m not going to say our marriage is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination,” Bryant told GQ in 2015.

“We still fight, just like every married couple. But you know, my reputation as an athlete is that I’m extremely determined, and that I will work my ass off. How could I do that in my professional life if I wasn’t like that in my personal life, when it affects my kids? It wouldn’t make any sense.”

Bryant and his wife have been reported to be regular parishioners at an Orange County, California parish.

Singer Cristina Ballestero posted on Instagram Jan. 26 a story of her encounter with Bryant at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, California at a weekday Mass.

“As we went up to communion, [Bryant] waited for me to go. If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you understand this is a respectful thing men do in church as a sign of respect to women. He said I have a beautiful voice.”

“His most inspiring trait was his decision to turn to his faith in God and receive God’s mercy and to be a better man after a regretful decision,” Ballestero added.

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I wanna tell a story about the time I met Kobe Bryant. I was sitting in the very back of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, CA, on a WEEKDAY mass. At the time I was very into wearing veils and on this particular day I had a scarf I used as veil. Right as mass begins I see a huge shadow in my right peripheral vision and hear a decently loud creak from probably a big man. I double took to see… it was KOBE BRYANT IN THE SAME PEW AS ME ON THE OTHER END! I just went about my normal praying and singing as usual cause he like all of us came to pray. Thank God I had the veil so I could stay focused on Jesus not this insanely talented Basketball player my whole family has looked up to and watched our whole lives. As we went up to communion, he waited for me to go. If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you understand this is a respectful thing men do in church as a sign of respect to women. He said I have a beautiful voice. I said thank you and went up to communion. @marydallal @mandymissyturkey and a couple other friends saw him standing behind me going to receive Jesus. And we talked about it after mass and freaked out together. It was such a cool experience to receive Jesus right before him, and also, to walk up to receive Jesus together. It was also cool to see him come for a weekday mass. He said in his GQ interview how a Catholic Priest helped him through the tough time he went through in the media. He also talks about how his faith is important. His most inspiring trait was his decision to turn to his faith in God and receive God’s mercy and to be a better man after a regretful decision. Him and his wife do so much great work with their foundation. I’m heartbroken at the news of his death, alongside his daughter Gianna. My prayers go out to his Family, friends and loved ones. Eternal rest grant unto him, and her oh Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they Rest In Peace, Amen. We love you Kobe & Gianna. 💔 . . . . #kobebryant

A post shared by Cristina Ballestero (@cristinaballestero) on

Bryant also had connected his Catholic faith to a family commitment to help the poor, through the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. The foundation helped fund youth homeless shelters and other projects aimed at serving the poor.

“You have to do something that carries a little bit more weight to it, a little more significance, a little more purpose to it,” he said in 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Homelessness “is one that kind of gets pushed on the back burner because it’s easy to point the blame at those who are homeless and say, ‘Well, you made that bad decision. This is where you are. It’s your fault.”

“In life, we all make mistakes and to stand back and allow someone to live that way and kind of wash your hands of it … that’s not right,” he said.

Funeral announcements for Bryant have not yet been announced.

Featured Image: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.