For residents of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., choosing between church and sports on Sunday morning is an easy one.
According to Rose John, town clerk, the town has a policy that ball fields may not be used until noon Sunday — after church services are over.
Of course, that's not to say the policy sets well with everyone. This past May, there was a request for an exception to the policy.
No go, said the town.
“The reason they would not allow the exception is that the field was in close proximity to churches,” recalls John. “One of our commissioners quoted Scripture about remembering the Sabbath during his part of the discussion on the subject.”
Would that every city and town across the United States were so respectful of Christianity the first day of each week.
They're not, but that needn't cause most Catholics much consternation. After all, most parishes offer multiple Sunday Masses to choose from.
For Phil and Barbara White of Clio, Mich., sports are as much a part of family life as sibling rivalry. But one activity that never gets second billing for them and their three children is Sunday Mass.
“We hope to show, by our words and our actions, that our faith is our No. 1 priority,” says Barbara. “We have never had to choose between playing in a soccer game and going to Mass. If we did, there is no doubt which we would choose.”
In fact, she points out, as long as Mass is understood as mandatory — and sports as optional — the latter can offer families a perfect (and relatively low-cost) way to spend Sunday afternoons together.
“My husband and I have always gone with the kids to their travel-team tournaments out of town,” she explains.
“We make the event a family activity. There have been times when it was inconvenient to go to Mass, but it was always possible, so we did it. Our kids found it interesting, because they've been to Mass so many different places.”
This attitude sits well with Father Joseph Krupp, chaplain and assistant coach of junior-varsity football at Lansing Catholic Central High School in Lansing, Mich.
“I think the challenge for parents is this: What is more important to you — your child's success on the field of athletics or their pursuit of holiness?” he says. “Parents answer this question in how they raise their kids and what their priorities are in scheduling. I challenge any parent who has a child involved in sports to let them love the game. Challenge their attitude when they want to blame; explain to them that excelling in sports happens when we give our all for the one who gave his all for us.”
For his part, Father Krupp relishes the fact that coaches seek him out. “They'll change a schedule or even request a special Mass,” he says. “I can't think of any coach who doesn't. Coaches will call me up and ask me to come and bless the kids. Even a couple of our non-Catholic coaches are particularly strong about bringing their players to our weekday Masses and attending with them.”
Linda Doyle of Grand Blanc, Mich., appreciates the effort it takes to meet various — and apparently competing — commitments.
“It's kind of a shock when you move from recreational soccer to competitive,” she says. “It gets more serious. If you realize you are over-committed, you must reevaluate. Scheduling, structuring and following through were a learning process for us. At times you have to make judgment calls.”
On occasion, her children have had conflicting practice times mandated by different teams. But the family philosophy was set.
“Through it all, we wanted to teach the kids that, when you make a commitment, you follow through,” says Doyle. “You have obligations. But if the kids ever felt pressure to play rather than go to church — which rarely happened — they knew what we felt was a priority: church.”
As a football coach and guidance counselor at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Ill., Tim McAlpin is not a stranger to setting faith as a top family priority.
“You have to look at why the person is missing practice or a game,” McAlpin says. “Church or family would be acceptable. Family first, program second. Take care of your family. Do what you need to do and if that means you're missing a practice or a game, we'll deal with it. I've never had to discipline — never would — an athlete for choosing church.”
For McAlpin, the question is, “Are you a good person? Are you working hard, part of the team, keeping your commitment?”
He recalls one time when the football team was going to the state finals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Muslim players needed to fulfill their religious obligation to prayer and fasting. He happily accommodated their request to leave practice for a few minutes to pray.
It was especially challenging for them to play while fasting every day from dawn until sunset, but they brought sack lunches and ate after the sun went down. The witness of their dedication was not lost on the other students, Catholics included.
For many dedicated sports families, the desire to teach their young athletes the primacy of faith comes through parental example. When the challenge is raised to choose church over sports, ultimately it is the parents who must show up for the game.
Janet Cassidy writes from Grand Blanc, Michigan.