By Tess Wahlmeier
LINCOLN (SNR) - Student athletes, especially collegiate athletes, run on a tight schedule – between classes, practice, meetings, training, and studying, there’s not always time for student athletes to nurture their souls. Varsity Catholic is a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which accommodates student athletes.
FOCUS missionaries Seth Wiedel and Jen Risper are currently the Varsity Catholic representatives at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wiedel said, “An athlete’s life is, a lot of times, completely different from that of the general campus,” explaining the challenges of an athlete’s schedule. “We exist for the student athlete,” he said.
Varsity Catholic gives student athletes the opportunity to attend and lead Bible studies, serve on mission trips, and grow in fellowship with other Christian athletes.
Both Risper and Wiedel were college athletes. Risper played Division I basketball at Vanderbilt and later in Europe, and Wiedel was a long- and triple-jumper at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Risper said she had started to develop a relationship with Christ when she was young, but it wasn’t until she was in Europe that she was able to actually fall in love with the Church, through the outreach of her best friend and college teammate.
“She discovered her Catholic faith and decided to evangelize me, basically,” Risper said, “so much so that I could not run from that.”
Her friend also introduced her to FOCUS, which then led her to Varsity Catholic. This is her third year as a missionary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Risper was actually a Varsity Catholic missionary at UNL while Wiedel was still a student there, and she mentored the woman who is now Wiedel’s wife, Kristin, who was a swimmer and a Varsity Catholic student leader.
When he first came to UNL as a freshman, Wiedel was far from interested in FOCUS or Varsity Catholic.
“I got an email from the missionary, and I think I deleted it,” he said. At the time, Wiedel thought the idea of a Bible study was for fanatics, but his best friend had been faithful to going to the Bible study and invited Wiedel to go with him. He met the missionaries, and, with time, began to develop a strong faith life and a deeper relationship with Christ.
“It was Christ who changed my life,” Wiedel said, “but it was Varsity Catholic that really allowed that encounter to happen.”
He continued: “as I sit here and just think about Varsity Catholic and my own faith life, there’s so much – you wouldn’t be able to pull any thread without them interconnecting. Most importantly, they led me to encounter Christ, and it was very much something of a personal freedom for me to run after once I met him.”
As graduation came about, becoming a missionary was not anywhere in Wiedel’s plans, but he said that he wanted to be able to lead to the same encounter that changed his own life. Wiedel is now entering his second year as a missionary at UNL.
Although Wiedel and Risper have grown in their faith through their mission, they both admit that it is not easy.
“There’s just so many times when you finally have to be completely vulnerable,” Wiedel said. “Evangelizing is difficult, and it’s still difficult, it was difficult yesterday . . . all we can do is surrender.”
“I’m not closer to Christ because I’m a FOCUS missionary,” Risper said. “I’m actually closer to Christ because I go to daily Mass, and I am throwing myself into the sacraments, and I’m actually committing to a daily prayer life.”
Risper explained that being fully Catholic is what brought her closer to Christ, and being a missionary allowed her to do that. “It’s still a journey, (but) it’s helped me grow deeper in my faith.”
The missionaries recently met with the Varsity Catholic student leaders, four men and six women, who are dedicated athletes and Catholics.
“It’s not necessarily these students are just trying to come to us and receive from us,” he said, “but they’re actually wanting to take leadership. They, themselves, have met Christ, and want to help others.” Wiedel said the student athletes realize the need within the athletic department, and they want to fill it.
Although “Catholic” is in the name, Varsity Catholic is not restrictive.
“I have a lot of girls who aren’t Catholic at all who come to Bible study and want to get involved,” Risper said. “It doesn’t matter what your faith background is, because everyone desires to be loved and desires to feel belonged, and so I think that’s really at the heart of what we’re doing.”
The missionaries and student leaders recently discussed RCIA at one of their meetings. Risper said, “we talked about RCIA and how beautiful that is of an opportunity to go deeper, to learn about Christianity, just the historical, scriptural, you know, everything, but almost every year we’ve had an athlete come to RCIA and enter into the Church, and so that’s been a huge blessing.”
Likewise, Varsity Catholic is not restricted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. One of the student leaders is an athlete at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Risper said, “a lot of times, as athletes, people see you as just your body – what you can do physically, how high you can jump, how fast you can run – and sometimes you feel like the spiritual side of you is just not getting fed.” Risper talked about the similarities between sports and spiritual lives, like perseverance, dedication, and commitment, and explained how one can be used as a tool to grow in the other. “It’s not until they (athletes) start to go deeper in their faith that they see, ‘wow, all these virtues that I’m growing in my sport, it’s actually for my faith life; this is where I’m actually going to thrive and be who God created me to be.’”
“The reality is that the human person is fully alive in Christ and that is the same for an athlete,” Wiedel continued. “They start to see all these connections, especially when you challenge them.”
Nebraska volleyball players Sydney Townsend and Annika Albrecht accepted that challenge by living out their faith, both on and off the court. Through Varsity Catholic, they attend and help lead Bible studies, join with other athletes to discuss and develop their faith, and give to the community.
“We went on a mission trip last Christmas break, to Puerto Rico, and coached volleyball for the girls down there,” Townsend said.
The two volleyball players constantly see the connection between sports and faith.
“In sports, you struggle, but that helps you succeed,” Albrecht said. “That happens in our prayer life, and that happens in life in general: you fail, and you overcome, and you go to confession, and you come out better – you come out stronger.”
“We talk about that, too, in Bible studies,” Townsend added, “and we did that in Puerto Rico.”
Risper said, “that’s the one thing I really talk to a lot of the female athletes about, is just using the gifts and talents that God has given you to love God and love people, and let that be your main focus,” she laughed, “no pun intended.”
Editor’s note: Visitors are welcome at the Newman Center this Sunday, Sept. 13 from 2 to 4 p.m. Click here for more information, and future dates.