Time for Détente between Church and Youth Sports

Campers pray the rosary July 24 during Mike Sweeney Catholic Baseball Camp at the Russell Road Sports Complex in Kent, Wash. (CNS photo/Stephen Brashear)

It may be time for détente between youth-oriented programs and parishes.

I offer this suggestion after hearing about a parish on Long Island which prepared a sixth grade reconciliation service for its religious education students. Only two-thirds of the expected students showed up. The reason? The service conflicted with a play rehearsal at the local public school that the religious education director had not been informed of.

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The story is a variation of others, for example, of sports practices that conflict with weekend Masses and coaches who threaten that little athletes won’t play in the next big game if they miss a practice. How’s that for setting up conflict in the home if parents want to attend Mass as a family?

The late Cardinal John O’Connor once complained he was losing altar servers to Little League. (I think Little League won in that skirmish.)

Some dioceses have found ways around the problem. In some school districts in North Dakota, for example, church officials work with local school boards and officials to keep Wednesday evenings after 5 p.m. free of all sports and other school activities. These evenings then become nights for religious education. Others have tried to do the same on Sunday mornings with less success, as school officials counter that there are lots of Masses from late Saturday afternoon to Sunday night when families might attend church together.

The various clubs outside school for dance and additional soccer, lacrosse and other team sports add to the problem. School championship marching bands that travel during Holy Week also challenge families that seek to celebrate the Triduum.

A number of principles for achieving détente come to mind.

  1. Avoid draconian positions on both sides. No “If a parent does not attend the sacramental preparation class for Baptism, First Eucharist or Confirmation, there is no sacrament for the child.” Nor, on the other hand, “anyone who misses practice can’t play.”
  2. Show respect for both church services and the value of sports. A pastor who shows up at a game or refers to the youth sports at Mass shows relevance and wins points. A coach who respects religious values has a strong teaching tool as he works to develop sportsmanship and honor among players. Some parishes make the early Sunday Mass one where young players wear their uniforms and get a special blessing on game day.
  3. Set good example right from home. Parents who do not go to Mass themselves undercut any argument they have that religious education and Mass attendance are vital for their children.
  4. Have the decency not to make children pawns in a power struggle between parents, coaches and pastors. Offer options, for example, by offering make-up classes and occasional home schooling in parish sacramental preparation programs when conflicts arise.
  5. Model healthy ways to resolve conflicts. When faced with conflicts between two goods, such as religion and sports, prove there is room for both. Such conflicts will come up throughout family life, for example, over where to celebrate holidays as the children grow older. Do sacrifices sometimes have to be made?
  6. Take the long view. What lessons will go further in the education and development of children?

The conflict does not appear to be on the wane as interest in sports grows and hopes for scholarships for would-be stars increase. The problem also fits into an overall challenge the church faces in the struggle to help people hear God in a world filled with distractions from Him.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.

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Anne Chapman
4 years 1 month ago
Very sensible suggestions. My children are adults now, but I remember the scheduling hassles. The children at our parish went to several area parochial schools,Catholic and not Catholic independent schools (the parish didn't have a school), as well as several area public schools. At the beginning of the year, those responsible for programming should obtain the school calendars for EVERY school that their religious education children attend. They should identify as many conflicts as possible from those calendars at the very beginning of the school year, and then try to work out a realistic schedule for major events of their own. If there are too many conflicts, perhaps they could call their counterparts at the schools and see what could be worked out. Adding youth sports to the mix complicates matters further - again, get the season schedules for soccer/baseball/baketball/football/lacrosse etc and look for the conflicts. Unfortunately, this has to be done by age groups! Once you add in private music lessons, dance lessons, art lessons etc, it might begin to seem hopeless, but by creating a master schedule it might also be possible to find the open times - at least for major events in the parish. Then there are the parents' commitments to work, etc. All in all - a formidable challenge. Those in charge of parish religious education should assume that some kids will miss some classes/events, but it might be possible to schedule the big events to minimize conflicts for the majority of students.
Mike Evans
4 years 1 month ago
And so the kids who have faithfully attended religious education classes and group activities, done their community service project, given evidence of understanding their faith and its main teachings end up being set aside and even mocked by the more favored athletes, drama queens and kings, saxophone players, and so many others. Why is it that the faith community has to schedule around a myriad of distracting options? Can't we all agree from all our faith traditions, that our kids' religious upbringing is the final and most essential "activity" in their lives?
Anne Chapman
4 years 1 month ago
Your frustration is understandable. I have heard that in many majority Christian communities, Wednesdays were set aside for church activities. That was never the case in the community where we have lived for more than 40 years. Plus in large parishes, it can't just be one day/week. My parish has religious ed on Sundays, as well as four afternoons and evenings/week. In large, diverse communities such as the one I live in, the reality is that there are just many competing activities and many schools involved. Parents may have to work with their children to set a limit. My husband and I did limit our kids- they were all athletes - very serious ones as they got older, with two continuing their sport in college - so other activities went by the board after a while - no Scouts, no drama (one was both an excellent athlete and an excellent actor, but he had to choose) etc. But we also eventually moved them from public school to Catholic, which made life easier. Most cannot do that, however. We were just one family with one set of specific needs. Multiply us by thousands (our parish had 3500 families at the time and some in our metro area have more than 4000 families) and you see the difficulty. Plus, in the town where we live, christians are not a majority. There is a very large Jewish population as well as a fairly significant Muslim population, plus Buddhists, Hindus, and others. The public schools and the community sports groups, as well as those involved with the many other activities involving the young, work overtime to try to accomodate all three sets of holy days, without actually calling them that (against the law). The churches and temples and mosques have to do the same. If parents force religious education at the expense of a child's passion (sports, music, art, whatever), they risk having their kids become forever resentful. As we know, a significant number of young adults today reject organized religion. They reject what they see as hypocrisy, and they have never found the "community" there that many find in sports, music, drama etc. I don't know the answer, but know that those involved cannot simply wag fingers.
Mike Evans
4 years 1 month ago
The custom of respecting Wednesday evenings is a long held tradition in many church going communities. That means no after 5 pm practices, games, rehearsals, and most importantly, deadlines for turning in assignments on Thursday. Unfortunately in our local community, that tradition is now defunct as everyone tries to find an excuse why their particular program or activity is more important than youth groups, catechism and confirmation classes, high school youth groups, bible study and even the old standby of Wednesday devotions. It is a sign of the disrespect we have as a secular community for almost anything that smacks of religious practice and too many kids are made fun of when they try to choose between serving their church or serving their coach. Beware, as soon as you begin to make special exceptions for this or that 'important activity' you will have lost the battle to keep Wednesday 'holy.' It has been a divide and conquer approach between parents, kids, administrators, rogue teachers, coaches, league officials and local school boards who won't touch the issue. Only the kids lose.
Linda Tuttle
4 years 1 month ago
For years, my parish Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Poughkeepsie, had a summer intensive program with family faith formation programs throughout the year. It was a wonderful alternative to the tradition religious education programs and a big help to working families because they had low cost oversight for their children over the summer. There were nearly 300 students in the program. Unfortunately, a new parish administrator used the "new broom sweeps clean" approach to parish management and decided to terminate the employment of both the Youth Minister/Music Director and Director of Faith Formation; dismantle the Faith Formation Program; and institute a traditional Religious Education program with a volunteer coordination. The program worked well and the students really learned a great deal without the distractions of homework, activities etc.

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