Polamalu’s faith, religion, spirituality, whatever

It’s NFL playoffs time again and, of course, the hated Pittsburgh Steelers are once again poised to knock the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs. If this horrific reality comes to pass (again), there is a very good chance that the deed will be done by the Steelers’ mane man, superstar safety Troy Polamalu. Personally, I think Polamalu is the best player in professional football and, yes, that includes the quarterback up in New England.

But this is not a football post. It’s a post about the improving — but still rather strange — coverage of Polamalu’s Orthodox Christian faith.

Things have improved a bit since that 2007 Yahoo Sports piece in which reporter Jason Cole observed that the Polamalu had a “carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field.” How do icons of Jesus, Mary and patron saints turn into vague “religious items”?

There was a time when many stories referred to Polamalu as a Catholic, presumably because of his use of the sign of the cross during frequent prayers — on and off the field. Of course, from a Catholic point of view — at least the Western rites — he was making the sign of the cross backwards, but never mind.

In this week’s obligatory Baltimore Sun feature about the superstar safety and Raven’s nemesis, we had this religious reference, including in the context of Polamalu being a quiet, low-key kind of competitor:

There is no topic he’s particularly eager to discuss, even though he’s the organizer of several charities and is a devoted follower of the Greek Orthodox religion. Putting a tape recorder or a microphone in his face is akin to asking a shy sixth grader to stand in front of the classroom and compete in the spelling bee. He’ll do it, and he’ll probably perform well, but only because he’s too polite to say no.

A few comments. First, Polamalu is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he attends a Greek Orthodox parish and often, because of his Sunday travels, his family attends the intense, four-hour services at a nearby Orthodox monastery. But it is awkward, to say the least, to say that he follows the “Greek Orthodox religion.” Is Orthodoxy a separate religion from, oh, Christianity?

Judaism is a religion. Islam is a religion. Hinduism is a religion. But “Baptist” is not a religion. “Methodist” is not a religion. Polamalu is a Christian who practices the Orthodox Christian faith.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Polamalu is Greek Orthodox, period, and is following a “spiritual path.” The word “Christian” is nowhere to be found, unless I missed it somehow. Yes, toward the end of the piece, he is described as kissing the “three-inch framed photos of the Virgin Mary and Jesus” before making the sign of the cross several times. Photographs? More likely, we’re talking about icons.

However, there is this detailed description of this believer’s journey into Orthodoxy and a reference to the “spiritual doctor” — most Orthodox would say “spiritual father” — and prayers that have helped to guide him on this journey.

“How many millions of people woke up in the morning, never to see the evening?” Polamalu read. And then: “The life of a man is a dream. In a dream, one sees things that do not exist; he might see that he is crowned a king, but when he wakes up, he sees that in reality he is just a pauper.”

The book in Polamalu’s hands, “Counsels From the Holy Mountain,” guides him in football and in life. It contains the letters and homilies of a Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Ephraim, whom Polamalu described as his spiritual doctor.

Polamalu, 29, sought out the octogenarian monk, who resides in a monastery in southern Arizona, a few years ago, a meeting that led Polamalu to the place he described as “heaven on earth.” It is a summit of sorts. But not the Super Bowl, though Polamalu won two championship rings in his first seven seasons with the Steelers. Neither of those journeys shaped him as profoundly as the pilgrimage he made to Mount Athos, a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece.

While there, Polamalu said he witnessed humility and sacrifice in its deepest, purest forms and realized that for all their obvious differences, the spiritual path shared much with a Super Bowl journey.

This is where you really begin to sense that the journalists do not realize that Orthodoxy is larger than Greece. Saying that Mount Athos is “a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece” is like saying that the World Cup is a soccer tournament. On top of that, the holy mountain contains monasteries from every corner of the Orthodox world, not just Greece.

Try telling millions of Russians that Athos is a center for Greek Orthodoxy — alone. This reference is simply inaccurate and deserves a correction.

So, reporters, would you like to know how to handle these kinds of complex issues in a way that is simple, smooth and accurate? You need to read Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of course. Observe the following, in a story about Orthodox Christmas rites, including Nativity Lent:

“We all celebrate Easter on the same day,” said Mr. Polamalu, 29. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054. He and Theodora converted to Orthodoxy about five years ago. His background was Catholic and Protestant, hers Muslim and Protestant. They were Christians in search of a deeper, more consistent experience of God.

“Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that’s just endless,” he said. “I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it’s like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly.”

That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.

And so forth and so on. The Greeks are important, obviously. But Orthodox Christianity — or Eastern Orthodox Christianity — is the wider, more expansive way to talk about this ancient faith.

Come on, people! Just do the background work.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.

    Eh, not necessarily. Advent was traditionally a fasting season in the Western Church as well, and there are some Catholics and Anglicans today who fast during Advent (I tried fasting for Advent last year, though not this year). My church’s newsletter this Advent made it clear that it’s supposed to be a penitential season, although less strict than Lent.

    My understanding is that Nativity Lent is longer then the Western Advent, though, and I don’t think even those Western Christians who do fast, go as far as the strict Orthodox fast.

    I confess that I do sometimes use the word ‘Greek Orthodox’ to talk about the Eastern Orthodox church broadly. My argument would be that the Eastern Orthodox communion is defined by being in communion with Constantinople, which was traditionally the center of the Hellenophone world, so it makes sense to refer to those in communion with Constantinople as ‘Greek Orthodox’, same way as it makes sense to refer to Anglicans in Brazil, Nigeria, and Madagascar as ‘Anglicans’ even though their services may not be conducted in English.

  • David Wayne

    Showing the Super Bowl prayer is important for all to see.


    Your “like” can make a difference so click to make a change. After the game is played and the intense battle is over, so many players join hands in the center of the field to give thanks. A beautiful thing that the networks either refuse to or cannot show. Your “like” might help change

    David Wayne

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Tell that to the Palestinians and the Slavs.

    Also, I have read recent Catholic docs that stress that Advent is no longer a season of repentance, etc. Was that a Vatican II thing?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Because she knows the Orthodox Church so well, I’ve written to Ann Rodgers in the past to ask her if she is Orthodox. She isn’t. She just takes her job as a reporter seriously, and tries very hard to get the facts straight.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Wow! A photograph of Jesus exists according to the NY Times.
    The use of the word “photo” in the story at first glance seems very odd. But it is more complicated than that.
    A real icon is painted by an artist–preferably a monk-artist–on wood. Such icons are very, very expensive. In fact most icons today are photographic reproductions of painted icons otherwise few people could afford to have one.

  • Julia

    As a shorthand – the ancient Christian world was described as Latin and Greek because of the predominant language of the two parts. Why is this controversial?

  • Hector


    Re: Tell that to the Palestinians and the Slavs.

    That’s a fair point- I was just making a point about the reasons someone might use the term ‘Greek Orthodox’, but I do realise why Orthodox believers dislike the term, because it seems to detract from the universality of the church, and tie it to a specific place. My own communion calls ourselves ‘Anglicans’ in spite of being an international church, but I appreciate that the two ecclesiologies are quite different: we don’t consider ourselves to be THE CHURCH, in the same sense that the Orthodox (I think?) do, so it makes more sense for us to descrive ourselves by a place-specific term.

    Re: Also, I have read recent Catholic docs that stress that Advent is no longer a season of repentance, etc. Was that a Vatican II thing?

    I don’t know what the official Catholic Church teaching is about Advent nowadays. I do know that plenty of lay Catholics and Anglicans, in my experience, do treat it as a time for fasting, prayer, confession, almsgiving, and the like. The Catholic church uses purple draperies for Advent, I think (it’s blue for Anglicans) which would go with the idea of being a penitential season.

  • Julia

    Re: what does Advent mean to Catholics these days.

    The focus is on preparation for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas and the Second Coming. These links at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website pretty much reflects what Advent is like in my diocese.

    Readings, devotions and confession are stressed.




  • Julia

    It’s my understanding that Catholics in the East don’t like the term Roman for the same reason the Palestinians and Slavs don’t like Greek to describe all Orthodox. Cardinal Mahony learned this to his surprise at the recent Synod of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

  • Hector


    Leaving aside the technical question of whether Advent officially counts as a penitential season, my general point was that I know some Western Christians who fast during Advent, as I’m sure you do too. It isn’t restricted to the Orthodox.

  • Julia


    I wasn’t disagreeing with you about people who fast. The question was asked about Catholics and Advent, so I found the official word from the US bishops. It doesn’t prohibit fasting and I’m sure some people do fast in Advent. The mandatory avoidance of eating meat on Fridays is over, but a fair number of people still continue that practice, too.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I was referring to that strong statement this year by the Utah bishop — who dared to ask his parishes and schools to observe Advent and, gasp, to celebrate Christmas during Christmas. He stressed that Advent is NOT a penitential season.

  • Maureen

    Bzzt! Abstinence from flesh meat or another penitential act is indeed still mandatory on Friday for Latin Rite US Catholics. “Another penitential act” and “during the week instead of Friday” are the US Latin Rite bishops’ indult to the universal Church law — but the default setting is no flesh on Friday. In fact, pretty much all of the old rules are still in force, although many have US indults.

    Sorry that the media got it wrong back in the day….

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    tmatt, I appreciate your respect for journalism, religion and language. (I also appreciate your Steeler highlight.)

  • Julia


    I am aware that another penitential act can be substituted and that a different day than Friday may also be substituted. Therefore the mandate of no meat on Friday is actually over, although an individual Catholic may still decide to observe the old rule.

    Many poorly catechized Catholics never heard about the substitution aspect you mention and don’t realize they are still expected to do some kind of penitential act weekly.
    I don’t think I’d blame the media for that.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    When I was working on this story I had to do a little research on the history of fasting in both the Eastern and Western churches. (This was primarily because I was concerned that sports talk radio would go berserk over his reference to sexual abstinence during Winter Lent.) The Western church was once as strict about fasting as the Eastern Church is, but in recent centuries (not just decades) it has become far less stringent. Although individual Western Christians may fast during Advent, it isn’t required as it is in the Eastern Church. Therefore I believe my description of the contrast is accurate.
    My guess was that when the NYT wrote “spiritual doctor” that Polamalu had said “spiritual director.” But “spiritual father” would also make phonetic sense.
    I wouldn’t be too hard on sports writers who described him as Catholic. They probably thought they had done their homework. At the time he came to Pittsburgh he wasn’t yet Orthodox, he spoke fondly of his early years in a Catholic school and he regularly prayed with the Benedictine monks at St. Vincent College, where the Steelers have their training camp. As a result The Pittsburgh Catholic, a diocesan newspaper, wrote a story that portrayed him as a devout Catholic. You can still find it on the Web, and sports writers have used it as a source.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    After posting the above I went back and read my story (which I had only skimmed when it was published). I realized that a couple of sentences I had written on the history of fasting in East and West — which included the abstinence issue — never made it into the paper. So much for all that research . . .

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Turns out we both owe the NYT reporter an apology. I had occasion to interview Troy Polamalu again this week for another project I’m working on. He does, in fact, call Elder Ephraim his “spiritual doctor” because he goes to him for help the way you would seek help from a physician.