CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Christians throughout the U.S. are becoming increasingly concerned with a growing number of families who do not attend holy Mass or other Sunday services due to the incursion of organized youth sports, music and other activities on Sunday, and even Sunday mornings — the Lord’s Day of resurrection and rest.
This concern has been expressed publicly by both Catholic and Protestant pastors and is recognized increasingly by bishops throughout the U.S. — some of whom have taken decisive steps to eliminate Catholic schools’ and parishes’ activities on Sundays that do not reflect the nature of the Lord’s Day and interfere with church attendance.
For example, the Archdiocese of New Orleans recently announced a new policy, to be in place for the 2014-2015 school year, requiring local Catholic schools to reschedule all Sunday sports and social events for other days.
The policy is "rooted in the fact that people have a number of obligations and commitments. Our society is fast-paced," Archbishop Gregory Aymond told The New Orleans Advocate.
"In living such a hectic life, people neglect sometimes, not purposefully, the very basics of faith and family," he said.
So how is a Catholic family to "keep holy the Sabbath" on the Lord’s Day of rest within a culture that is so imbued with activities? Faithful, practicing Catholics understand that it is their obligation to participate in corporate worship on Sundays (or Saturday evenings).
But Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini (The Lord’s Day), stressed that more is required. "Sharing in the Eucharist is the heart of Sunday, but the duty to keep Sunday holy cannot be reduced to this," he stated, adding that, for Catholic families, "the relaxed gathering of parents and children can be an opportunity not only to listen to one another, but also to share a few formative and more reflective moments" (52).
With the encroachment of organized sports, music and other activities on Sundays, Catholic parents have adopted a range of approaches as they wrestle with this increasing challenge.
Stephen Gajdosik, a father of seven in Moore, S.C., works in Catholic radio and has children who play soccer and basketball — except on the Lord’s Day. "We simply don’t do it, as it would intrude on the purpose for Sunday," Gajdosik said. "We don’t have to consider or weigh options. It is a proverbial no-brainer."
"Love seeks the greater good of the beloved," he added. "It doesn’t seek to just fulfill the other’s likes."
Gajdosik’s clear principles for his family extend to soccer and basketball practices and games on Sundays. While his family will participate in events with other friends or perhaps attend a parish picnic, "if the sports teams meet on Sunday, we don’t join," he said.
Other families take a more nuanced approach to the dilemma. For individual sports like golf, gymnastics, tennis, etc., making a conscious decision against all Sunday competition affects only the individual youth athlete. However, in team sports, where practices and game plans are based on all team members, families are faced with the prospect of "letting down the team" or "not being a team player."
Elizabeth Sorenson, a mother of 14 children who participated in judo and other sports growing up, is a clinical psychologist based in Michigan. With seven of her children playing multiple sports at any time, she has a different perspective on how fulfilling one’s obligation on Sundays can be exercised according to one’s state in life and for the greater glory of God.
"I think that families can intentionally keep the Sabbath Day holy while playing sports if parents keep their focus on the sanctification of ordinary life," Sorenson said. "Sports Sundays offer an opportunity for family togetherness, mutual support, prayer and rest from schoolwork and household work," she said.
Mirroring the late John Senior’s recommendation in his book Restoration of Christian Culture, where he advocated that parents encourage and play sports and other activities with their children rather than spending entire days watching sports on television, Sorenson said, "Sunday sports have been on television for a longer time. How is watching a screen bringing me closer to my Savior?"
Added Sorenson, "For me, the experience of being with my children, packing a picnic, talking together, praying together, supporting a brother or sister on the field — these are moments that invite contemplation of the Divine in our life."
Theresa Ostendorf is the mother of five living children in South Carolina. She has an active Catholic apostolate just south of Charlotte, N.C., in a predominantly non-Catholic area. Her family has been very active in three sports and marching band — especially her now 22-year-old daughter Morgan, who was often challenged by her team’s playing matches on Sunday mornings.
Ostendorf said that the coach would not penalize her daughter for missing games and attending Mass instead, and in fact, it would be something of an evangelical witness to the rest of the team when, after church, they would arrive at the field in time for the next game.
However, Ostendorf has a growing concern with the prominence given to organized youth sports and other Sunday activities.
"At the end of a good Sunday, we will often hear ourselves or one of our children say, ‘I wish we could do Sunday again tomorrow,’" Ostendorf said. "This is where I remind myself or that child that is what heaven will be like — an eternal Sunday," she said.
"When heavy into the sports season, our family often gets separated, sometimes in different states, and thus our family does not get that weekly bond that helps us get through the struggles of the week," she said. She noted that when sports seasons are in full swing, the entire family might not be together for an entire month on a weekend or Sunday due to the travel team commitments of high-level sports competition.
Morgan Ostendorf, who originally attended Ave Maria University on a soccer scholarship, provided a personal perspective on reconciling Sunday sports with her faith and her family.
"My family made many sacrifices to come to my games, but it is not a family day of rest when you are rushing to and from a game," she said. "Saturdays can be the sports day. If God rested for a day, we definitely should."
However, Morgan added that, while she was in youth and high-school sports, soccer was such an important part of her life that she was glad her family made the sacrifices they did.
"My family is very rooted in our faith, and I used soccer as a way to view life — and every progression in the sport was all for God and by God."
Theresa Ostendorf stressed that she has many fond memories and proud moments of great times with her children in both their victories and defeats. "We watched our children mature and work through many challenges both on and off the field," she said.
"Team sports on the high level of travel teams is a great experience for everyone involved, and I love that it opens the door to being selected to play on college teams," she said. "If only the Sunday games were a rare part of the sport and not the norm."
"Keeping Sundays holy and different from other days is a challenge for all families, (especially) with some families who have a parent or child whose work hours fall on Sundays," she said. "For us, sports on Sundays are an opportunity to bring the family to God rather than be a distraction from him. It is the internal conversion of our hearts which alters the ordinary demands of sports into opportunities for grace, character development and virtue."
Brian Mershon writes from Greenville, South Carolina.