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"We believe God is an Eagles fan," says a Philadelphia pastor, adding, more seriously, "God is not interested in game-winning."
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003
TAMPA -- In Sunday's pivotal gridiron clash between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, will God be rooting for the Bucs or the Eagles?
Monsignor Laurence Higgins of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church will be offering his prayers on behalf of the Bucs.
"I'm not going to pray to lose," Higgins said.
The Rev. C. Matthew Hudson, pastor of St. Paul's Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia, has a different take.
"We believe God is an Eagles fan," he said.
Seeking divine intervention for a game-winning field goal poses a thorny theological question: Is it legitimate to ask God to help your team win?
The faithful are as divided as NFL fans.
"I sort of hope God's attention is on some other needs . . . with Iraq and all the other concerns," said Bill Cooley, co-pastor of Tims Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lutz.
Several religious leaders offered a light-hearted perspective on Sunday's National Football Conference Championship, but eventually adopted a more sober tone.
"God is not interested in game-winning," said Hudson, the Philadelphia pastor. "God is only interested in soul-winning."
But the serious note did not last.
Asked what he would like to tell Buc fans, Hudson said: "I'm very sorry. My pastoral heart goes out to them. After the game is over, I do extend my hand to pick them up."
None of this surprises Monsignor Higgins.
"What do you think (they're) going to pray for, us? This is war, man. We've got to get to the Super Bowl."
The question of prayer and football often brings to mind the University of Notre Dame, where the mural on one building has been dubbed "Touchdown Jesus."
The Rev. James Riehle spent 30 years as chaplain of the school's football team, but said in an interview Thursday he never prayed for the Irish to win. He didn't think that was appropriate.
"Suppose we're playing Boston College?" he said. That would place God in the position of choosing between two Roman Catholic schools.
"I left it up to the team to play and . . . you can't win all the time, you've got to lose sometimes and you've got to learn to accept it," Riehle said.
Before hanging up, Riehle, now retired and living in Florida, had this to say:
Rabbi Gary Klein of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, who is "not particularly concerned about the outcome," thinks about the game holistically.
"Judaism teaches that you should never pray for anyone else's misfortune," he said. "Therefore, it is inappropriate to pray for the outcome of a sporting event because there is a loser as well as a winner.
"Prayer should only involve the well-being of everyone," he said. "It is appropriate to pray that no player on either team is injured, that all participants and fans arrive at the game and return home safely."
God himself has a similar view, at least if you believe the sign at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg:
I heard your prayer, I just
don't care who wins the game
But the pastor cares.
"I'll tell you one thing, I'm going to be glued to the TV," said the Rev. Bradford Purdy. So will much of his flock.
"I'm sure probably some people in my church will be praying for the Bucs, especially the ones who have season tickets," Purdy said.
He doesn't say that's wrong, but he chooses not to do it himself.
When asked whether it's proper to pray for a Bucs game, the Rev. Willie J. Williams of Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist Church in Tampa was the only one of several clergy members who provided a scriptural answer: "Let me give you a good biblical answer: Man shall always pray and not faint."
For those keeping score at home, that's Luke, chapter 18, verse 1.
At Northeast Christian Church in St. Petersburg the sign says, "Pray for the Eagles, Cheer for the Bucs."
Pastor J.R. Carrel said the sign was an eye-catcher. But he thinks the Bucs could use some divine help. "They need a prayer this week, they've got a big hill to climb."
Carrel takes all this with a grain of salt. For religious fans, "I would say pray for your favorite team and let God decide."
For his part, he's hoping for a victory.
"If the Bucs win this game we will encourage people to wear Bucs paraphernalia on Super Bowl Sunday," Carrel said. "We're already planning on calling it "Super Sunday.' "
-- Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt contributed to this report.