Catholic priests have often been associated with sport in their parish work, especially in local cricket and football clubs through the YCW and CYMS associations. But some have self-appointed themselves as informal chaplains to AFL clubs such as John Brosnan, the doyen of Australian prison chaplains, who was very closely involved with the Geelong Cats football club and with greyhound racing, and Gerard Dowling, who wrote a history of the North Melbourne Kangaroos football club. Nowadays there seems little Catholic chaplaincy participation in sports at either the local or high performance levels.
However, there has been involvement in the racing industry because of the heavy connection of the Irish Catholic community with jockeys, trainers, stable hands, racecourse workers, bookmakers and owners. In Melbourne, the first racing chaplain, Fr. John Pierce, was appointed by Archbishop Mannix in 1959 snd he served until his death in December 1970 when he was succeeded by Monsignor Bernard O’Regan (1971 – 1991); thereafter Fr. Brendan Dillon who has been racing chaplain for the past 25 years.
Dillon explains how “I have visited many sick and injured jockeys, track riders and their families, in conjunction with Des O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Victorian Jockeys’ Association. He is a marvel in his care of such people. He and his small team from Racing Victoria give great support to the sick, those who are temporarily or permanently injured, their families and the families of jockeys and track riders who have died as a consequence of race or track accidents or some other misfortune’. An annual racing Mass is held at St. Francis’ Church in Lonsdale St, Melbourne on the Sunday before the Melbourne Cup. A key role in chaplaincy for the harness racing industry has been played by Fr. Brian Glasheen, the now retired parish priest of Bacchus Marsh and himself a harness racing driver in his younger days. He also organizes a Catholic Mass at every Inter-Dominion Trotting Championship held every two years somewhere in Australia or New Zealand.
On the evangelical Christian side, the narrative commences in the 1960s when retired and then current Christian athletes formed the Christian Sports Fellowship which linked in with the International Sports Ministry which had grown out of high profile sports men and women in the USA and which held a conference in Hong Kong in August 1982 attended by nine Australians. Their efforts led in 1984 to Australia’s test cricket authorities appointing as their chaplain Rev. Mark Tronson, a Baptist pastor who was also a part-time industrial chaplain. This led to the establishment of the Sports and Leisure Ministry but by 2005 membership had fallen to only 45 chaplains. In that year it was revamped to become the Australian Sports Chaplaincy and in 2016 it had 760 sports chaplains who had dealt with 3032 critical care responses in the first ten months. It was headed by Cameron Butler, longtime chaplain to the AFL Melbourne Demons. Its mission is to provide pastoral care to athletes, clubs, venues and sports academies, including the Australian Sports Academy.
Even though all sports chaplains are volunteers, Australian Sports Chaplaincy has become a professionalized operation with a good website and training programs for those volunteers who wish to become such chaplains. Sports administrators now recognize that chaplains are very useful in dealing with the personal problems of their athletes. The chaplains themselves, supported by their local church community, realized that with a chaplain in every sports club, an estimated 75 per cent of the Australian population would be reached. A more casual, volunteer approach is deployed with chaplains usually working for 4 – 8 hours per week and governed by a code of conduct that is very protective of young people. Over 100 Growth-Centre Bounce Teams have been formed across Australia to identify sports clubs in need of a chaplain.
Given the inherent dangers in their sport, the Confederation of Australian Motorsports has over 50 chaplains, including for the Australian Grand Prix and the Bathurst 1000. It is the requirement of both the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games that chaplains are provided for the athletes and spectators as happened in Sydney in 2000 and in Melbourne in 2006. A kerfuffle occurred in Melbourne when the Sikh chaplain was not allowed into the Games village because he was wearing his kirpan or sacred dagger in contravention of the special Security Act and the legislation had not allowed for exemptions. This has since been resolved at local and international levels.
For the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Hannah Johnson was the team’s chaplain. The late John von Groningen was chaplain to the Boomers, Australia’s basketball team as well as being chaplain to the Western Bulldogs in the AFL where a major award is named after him. Some sports such as the winter sports, golf, tennis and baseball have been slow to take on the idea of chaplaincy. In cricket, the international umpire, Tony Crafter, was instrumental in introducing the Life after Cricket Program to prepare elite cricketers for life after cricket. Life saving clubs now have 22 chaplains around Australia. In their assessment of the current situation, Australian Sports Chaplaincy is concerned about attempts towards professionalization and the licensing of sports chaplains which might destroy the ‘power of volunteerism’.