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Betsy Kneepkens: Kobe Bryant shows sinners belong in the church

I am a sinner. Although I genuinely strive to live the holiest life possible, I have inclinations that drive me toward sin, and I succumb to those behaviors. Worse yet, I am not sure I have made it more than 24 hours after receiving the sacrament of reconciliation before I have sinned again. I rely on God’s mercy to keep me in a relationship with him.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Although we established our family roots in northern Minnesota, the sport of hockey never took hold with us. We are, for all practical purposes, a basketball family. Both my husband and I played, and each of our children played in high school. Basketball is a pastime that our whole family enjoys.

Like most Americans, when the news arrived that Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash, the information stopped us in our tracks. The notion that someone so young and accomplished, would die unexpectedly like that caused us to pause.

At the time the news broke, I was rebounding basketballs for my daughter. The announcement was received as breaking news on her cell phone during a water break. Immediately my daughter surfed the internet as I waited impatiently for more information, hoping the original headlines were a hoax. We reached out to other family members to see what they had heard. As time passed, and more credible news sites covered the story, the hope of deception diminished.

Although most did not know that Kobe Bryant embraced his Catholicism, as a fan, I had known his faith was very important to him. He attended Sunday Mass when he had road games and raised his children in the church. Furthermore, it was not extremely unusual for him to wander into church to contemplate alone or attend daily Mass. The wider world seemed to learn about his devotion to his faith when the news reported he went to church before the accident. It seemed to me that the media was a bit surprised that a superstar athlete, like Kobe, would be a Catholic.

As hours passed after the helicopter crash, the retold story that Kobe was unfaithful to his wife and settled out of court with the alleged victim of sexual assault became newsworthy again. For some, the duplicity of his behavior, as husband and potential assaulter, caused others to appear to be disturbed when Kobe was identified as a devoted Catholic. I am perplexed that after 2,000 years since Christ walked the earth there are still people confused about sinfulness and a person’s relationship with the Catholic Church.

I know that I could never condone the behavior of assault or infidelity, but I wonder where the notion developed that sinners should not be practicing Catholics. For me, the belief that Kobe grew in his faith, strove to stay close to Christ, and received the sacraments was the hope Christ had for all of us. I find solace in knowing Christ’s hope.

I am assuming it was the tenets of his faith that brought him to his admission and sincere apology for the harm he said he unwittingly caused another. When I sin and seek redemption, the first place I look is my faith. Furthermore, I am not confused one bit when the first communal prayer at Mass is an act of contrition. We need to get the message out that Catholics sin even while seeking holiness. Other than the confessional, there is no better place for a sinner than in the pews of a Catholic church.

The other matter that Kobe situation brings to light is what it means as a Catholic to forgive. We are all harmed by each other’s sins, but in most cases, there is a particular victim that is directly harmed. How do we hold up, support, and respect those directly wounded by sin at the same time we forgive the sinner? Does forgiving the sinner mean you are not respecting the person sinned upon? Was Christ so radical that he calls us into two separate but simultaneous journeys — one for us to help heal the wounded and another to forgive the sinner, all while not depending on the wounded to heal or the one who caused harm to be contrite?

It is Lent, and I am a sinner. Kobe, his death, his past transgressions, and how we are called to treat situations like this is a significant matter to contemplate. I need to wrestle with the relationship between the sinner and the person sinned upon.

Christ didn’t say that God is the only forgiver and healer, but rather we are called to do the same. Lent is a great time for me to put this to prayer and seek a better understanding, because if I can figure out how to rightly love the sinner and those sinned upon, I can remain hopeful I will be treated the same.

May Kobe, his daughter, and the other passengers rest in peace. And may those who misunderstand the necessary relationship we should have with Christ and the church during our sinful times be enlightened by the church’s mission this Lenten season.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.