Big East Catholic colleges
Villanova Wildcats forward JayVaughn Pinkston looks for an open lane past Marquette Golden Eagles forward Jamil Wilson during a Feb. 23 NCAA basketball game. Newscom photo

When the first tipoff of the 2013-14 college basketball season takes place, it will mark the debut of a new league founded by seven teams known both for their prowess on the court and for the Catholic identity of their respective schools. 

In a move that shook up the world of college sports, seven major basketball powerhouses — Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence — officially announced in early March plans to split from the Big East conference. Dubbed the “Catholic 7” by the media, the schools will retain the rights to the Big East name when they depart the league effective July 1. 

On March 20, the conference announced that two additional Jesuit schools, Xavier University in Cincinnati and Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., would be added to the roster for the inaugural season.  

Joining them was Butler University in Indianapolis, the only non-Catholic school in the league.  

The fact that nearly all of the conference’s teams represent Catholic schools is unprecedented in college sports.  

Shared mission

The Catholic schools, none of whom field NCAA Division I football teams, shared a common bond in the old Big East due to the fact that all feature basketball as the centerpiece of their athletics programs. And while that was a major influence on their decision to break away from the conference, Dominican Father Brian Shanley, president of Providence College in Providence, R.I., told Our Sunday Visitor that they have also been united by their Catholic foundations. 

“We all share a common worldview, and that includes first of all being Catholic institutions who believe that athletics is an important part of the development of our students,” said Father Shanley. “All of us really see that participation in athletics can be an important way for young people to develop into the kinds of human beings that we hope they will be.” 

Meet The Teams

Here are profiles of the 10 schools in the new Big East:  

Playing in a high profile league that is comprised mainly of Catholic teams will also help the schools to better publicize their missions, he said.  

“Basketball’s prominence has been a way for Providence College to get its mission and its name out there,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we think playing in this league is going to be important for us. All of us feel this league will be a way of hopefully attracting students to our mission.” 

Added values

Chris Monasch, athletic director at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., told OSV that the Catholic identity of a school like St. John’s plays an important role in athletics. 

“Any athletic department should be run consistent with its particular university’s mission,” he said. “In our case we are a Catholic and Vincentian school, and that certainly is applied [in our athletics program].” 

Those Vincentian values, which place a strong emphasis on caring for the poor, have been incorporated through the extensive charity work and community service that student athletes undertake. During the 2011-12 academic year, St. John’s players contributed a combined total of 2,365 hours of service, including caring for the homeless at shelters and soup kitchens and volunteering with programs that serve underprivileged children.  

At Villanova University, athletes are taught how to be “servant leaders,” learning the importance of teamwork, selflessness, and helping others, said Augustinian Father Rob Hagan, the school’s associate athletic director. Over time, those lessons can have a big influence on athletic competition. 

“You see it in the way these student athletes conduct themselves,” Father Hagan told OSV. “There’s a certain energy and synergy that happens in a community where athletes know that the person on the other side of them is willing to sacrifice some of their own glory for the betterment of the team.”  

And with all seven founding members of the new league coming from similar backgrounds, including schools founded by several different religious orders, Father Hagan said there is an opportunity to bring together athletes who place more emphasis on the way the games are played than simply on who is victorious.  

“Some of our schools’ charisms are a little bit different, but we are still focused on the same values,” he said. “It is refreshing to find student athletes and teams like that, and we’re very excited about the possibilities of the league.”

Sharing the Faith

With the new league receiving such high profile media attention, including national television coverage for their games, the schools will also have some unique opportunities to share their Catholic faith. 

Ray McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, told OSV that the schools’ Catholic identity can remain front and center through simple acts such as having priest chaplains visible on the sidelines, having prominent Church figures in the crowd at games, or holding a large Mass to kick off the annual Big East Tournament.  

“They are subtle, but there are ways to go out and be very publicly Catholic, where it can be a public witness without even saying anything,” he said. 

McKenna said there is also a chance for the league to provide a platform for evangelization. Whether it be a halftime interview with a chaplain or a short video shown during a break in the action, the league can share Catholic messages with an audience that otherwise may never be exposed to the Church’s teaching and ministry. 

“It is an opportunity to say we are a Catholic school, we are in the image of Jesus Christ and these are our Gospel values and how we live them,” McKenna said. “I think that is a real potential opportunity, especially when the league is predominantly made of Catholic teams.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.