In central Italy, in the town of Porretta Terma, the local Catholic priest Don Filippo Maestrello, the Italian Basketball Federation, and basketball aficionados worldwide are working to have the Madonna of the Bridge (Madonna del Ponte) recognized as the official patron saint of basketball. And now David Hollander, a clinical associate professor at the NYU SPS Tisch Institute for Global Sport, where he teaches the popular course “How Basketball Can Save the World,” and nearly 150 students participated in the first international appeal in support of this recognition by the Vatican.
In December 2021, The New York Times featured the town’s quest for the Madonna of the Bridge to be recognized as the patroness of basketball by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The Madonna of the Bridge Church has a long history of being a sacred and revered place for basketball lovers.
Over the years, teams, players, coaches, and fans had visited the church’s Chapel of the Basketball Players (Sacrario Del Cestista), leaving messages, memorabilia, and jerseys, including those of Kobe Bryant, who lived in the area when his father played in Italy.
After reading the Times story, Hollander and one of his former students Alessandro Gherardi, who came from that region of Italy and was familiar with the town’s basketball connection, arranged to have vice-parish priest Maestrello join one of Hollander’s classes to share the story of the Madonna of the Bridge and its basketball legacy with students.
“Maestrello’s visit to our class and hearing the town and church’s reverence for the Madonna of the Bridge and the sport of basketball was inspiring,” said Hollander, who has a book of the same name as his course coming out in 2023. “Our students and I felt that the best way to help support Maestrello and the town’s efforts was to deliver an international letter of support for the formal recognition of the Madonna directly to the Vatican.”
In the letter, Holland and his students posited many reasons why basketball was so necessary to our understanding of the world: “Because ‘basketball is more than just physical, it transcends physicality;’ Because ‘basketball is a graceful and beautiful form of self-expression;’ Because ‘basketball is nothing short of a God-given way an orange ball and hoop can disintegrate the problems of the world and leave us with nothing but peace for the duration of the game, so it is right that the game of basketball is blessed with a patron saint to guide its travel across the globe.’”
This past week, the Italian daily newspaper la Repubblica reported that the letter of support from Hollander and his students arrived on the desk of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who is part of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in hopes of accelerating the recognition process.
Currently, there is no set timeline for receiving recognition from the Vatican. However, many involved in the efforts feel that the final approval from the Vatican is, to use a basketball term, a lay-up that will happen soon.