Eighteen years ago, during the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, Pope St. John Paul II said in a homily: “Every Christian is called to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel. But to succeed in this, he must persevere in prayer, be trained in virtue and follow the divine Master in everything.”

Some 12 years ago, Ray McKenna, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former lay baseball chaplain, founded Catholic Athletes for Christ to serve Catholic athletes in the practice of their faith and to share the Gospel in and through sports. 

In his first apostolic exhortation, in 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis wrote: “Even if it is not always easy to approach young people, progress has been made in two areas: the awareness that the entire community is called to evangelize and educate the young, and the urgent need for the young to exercise greater leadership.” 

Three years ago, Brian Hassler, just a year into his responsibility as athletic director at Madison Heights Bishop Foley High School, found the solution to his desire to form a club for the school’s boy and girl athletes that would incorporate the aspirations of both pontiffs.

Bishop Foley became one of nearly a hundred middle and high school CAC chapters in the USA. Members are recognized by the trademarked ID of “Cathletes.”

“I think we are the only CAC chapter in the archdiocese,” says Hassler. “We had about 20 athletes join the first year, but it has grown to about 70 now.”

The club meets for a half-hour at 7:15 a.m. every other Wednesday. 

“I provide donuts and bagels,” Hassler smiles. “I’m amazed that 50-55 members show up.”

The meeting follows a yearlong curriculum provided by the national CAC office. The lessons are sacramentally-focused and interweave sports terminology and stories, faith analogies and Catholic-based teachings such as the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism.

“There’s usually a theme,” Hassler says. “For example, this week was perseverance. I can use a suggested sports story or one of my own. I told about our swim relay team, not expected to contend, come from behind to win the event.”

Junior "Cathletes" Anna Galbenski, left, and Olivia Green enjoy a fun run and walk with the students at Bovenschen School in Warren.

Junior Kayla Moore related her own lesson in perseverance. A year ago, she injured her knee during a volleyball match, requiring surgery.

“I remember I was mad about something that day. I don’t remember about what. I played mad and got hurt. That upset me more. I sat on the sideline for a year, but it taught me not to dwell on the negative. There’s good in everything,” Moore said.

She’s back playing volleyball, basketball and softball. Her rehabilitation “sparked my interest in becoming a physical therapist,” Kayla says.

Community service is a vital aspect of the Cathletes program. “The club is driven by the students,” Hassler says. “They decide what they want to do.”

About three times a year, members read to students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Some of the schools they visit are Royal Oak St. Mary, Clawson Guardian Angels, Detroit Holy Trinity, Warren St. Anne, St. Clair Shores St. Joan of Arc and Utica St. Lawrence.

Junior softball pitcher Brooke Imrick says it was a “cool thing” to read at her grade school, St. Lawrence. She got to see former teachers, and the kids “were so excited.”

A popular service project is helping students with moderate to severe cognitive impairments, ages 3-26, at Bovenschen School in Warren, one of the Macomb Intermediate School District's Center Program Schools. 

“It’s a fun run or walk that everybody really enjoys,” Hassler says.

Special Olympics is another favorite activity. Foley Cathletes will be in Waterford on Saturday, Nov. 10, for a bowling tournament.

In February, those members brave enough will be in Rochester, one of 30 locations around the state participating in the annual Polar Plunge put on by the Law Enforcement Torch Run® to support Special Olympics Michigan.

The Foley CAC club also raised more than $500 via a school-wide toy and clothing drive for Birthright of Macomb. Money is raised by students paying $2 for the privilege of wearing jeans on “Jeans Day.”

Hassler, who hired on as athletic trainer at Foley right after graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy 18 years ago, says he’s talked with coaches at Novi Detroit Catholic Central about implementing the Shamrocks’ rosary workout concept at Foley.

This could complement a project Foley football coach Brian Barnes introduced last year called “A March to Greatness,” a three-day Stations of the Cross workout during Lent. During that event, some 40 students showed up at 6:45 a.m. for the 45-minute exercise. Students do stations 1-5 the first day, 6-10 the second, and 11-14 the third day. At each station, a brief meditation is followed by an exercise: pushups, squat jumps, leg lifts, lunges, jumping jacks, sprints, etc.

“Our main focus,” says Hassler, “is to develop future servant-leaders ... who will boldly proclaim their faith.”