The Rev. Mike Van Sloun, the Catholic chaplain for the Vikings, predicts the hot line to heaven will be sizzling Sunday. When the going gets tough, a lot of football fans — and players — check in with God.
"There's a lot of praying going on during these games," said Van Sloun. "If the Super Bowl is important to 115 million people, it's important to God."
In fact, one in four Americans believe God has a hand in the Super Bowl games, according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. While clergy such as Van Sloun offer team-neutral heavenly appeals, most folks in the bleachers are praying for a home-team win.
As the faithful across Minnesota gear up for Super Bowl Sunday, they've been organizing viewing parties, football-themed sermons, outreach on the streets and even a month of special daily prayers. Grace Church in Eden Prairie, for example, orchestrated the distribution of nearly 200,000 magazines featuring inspirational stories of 2018 Super Bowl players.
One of the most well-known Christian athletes, former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, is speaking at Emmanuel Christian Center in Spring Lake Park on Super Bowl Sunday. As its website proclaims: "Come early wearing your favorite player's jersey, enjoy food off the grill, and play some games."
A Christian website, getinthegame.net, provided the ABCs of hosting parties and prayer to link faith and football. "Don't be caught sitting on the bench,'' it implores. Meanwhile churches are setting up "Souper Bowl" parties in which guests bring cans of soup to donate to food shelves.
Sunday evening worship services could be a casualty. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda gave special permission to downtown Minneapolis churches to hold an additional mass on Saturday afternoon. That allowed some parishes to cut Sunday night services that clashed with game time.
Many people underestimate the importance of faith in athletics, said Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C. But institute surveys have consistently shown one in four Americans believe God is an invisible player on the field.
The figure jumps to more than 40 percent among evangelical Christians and nonwhite Protestants. And nearly 50 percent believe God rewards athletes of faith.
Taking no sides
"I think folks in cities where people tend to be more secular, where there's a more diffuse religious culture, are often surprised when they see an athlete thanking God," Cox said. "But for people who are religious, they'd say 'Of course.' Athletes are thanking God for their performance, their health, their vitality."
It's not like God is sitting around watching the game, stressed Van Sloun. But God watches over people all the time, he believes, and that includes on Super Bowl Sunday.
Van Sloun doesn't believe in praying for his favorite team to win, even as he leads masses for Vikings players and coaches before their games.
"If you pray for victory, your team, you pray for loss of another," he said. "But God is the God of both sides."
Dave Gibson, a pastor at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, has been one of the busiest clergy this Super Bowl season. He has overseen the distribution 200,000 copies of Sports Spectrum magazine, which offers inspirational stories of 2018 Super Bowl players. Teams of volunteers have been handing out the magazines, helped by dozens of large congregations.
On Friday, a group met at the Jaur Cafe, a Grace Church cafe near the stadium. They bowed their heads in prayer before setting forth into the skyways. They prayed for the protection of Minneapolis and its gifts, and for "divine encounters'' in which God makes himself known to others, said Kimberly Johnson, a team leader.
Her team won't be praying for any particular Super Bowl team, she said. But if the Vikings were playing, "that might be different," she joked.
Other churches are taking a more low-key but pragmatic approach. Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church near downtown Minneapolis is making an extra effort to welcome visitors and added a 3 p.m. Saturday mass to accommodate them, said the Rev. Dan Griffith. It also eliminated its Sunday evening mass, knowing it would face tough competition.
Meanwhile, Super Bowl metaphors will run rampant in the pulpits across the Twin Cities. The Rev. Paul Treacy of Church of the Assumption in St. Paul said his most recent sermon examined what Christians can learn from the Super Bowl advertising blitz.
"We talked about the power of persuasion," he said, "how we're called upon to persuade others in terms of witnesses to our faith."
But Treacy wasn't immune to the Super Bowl hype. He ziplined across the Mississippi River last week, joking that before the leap, "I said a prayer for the zipline maker.''
Van Sloun delivered one of the prayers at the National Football League owners' dinner Thursday night in St. Paul. He's also writing some game day prayers.
"One of my prayers is that everyone is safe and that this will unify our community,'' said Van Sloun. "I think [the Super Bowl] has spiritual value. You have both nonbelievers and churchy types rallying together for a day.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511