In SPORTS We Trust?

This article is brought to you by another near parental misstep.

Having made the traveling soccer team, our older sons have officially navigated us past the "everybody wins" arena and into the "serious sports" arena (Though seriously, anyone who has spent any time at any game at any level knows that "everyone wins" is a Utopian fantasy. Everyone knows the score. Everyone knows that people have different gifts and propensities that factor into the outcome. Without this framework, not only is one deprived of a real context for improvement, but a context of purpose. I'll leave it to my readers to draw the political analogy- a conversation for another time!).

As one of seven children I grew up with a strong faith, and a super-competitive spirit. These were put on a collision course when I discovered that our sons' first practice coincided with our monthly Made2Worship event, which has become a very meaningful "flag in the sand" event for our family. And, I'm ashamed to admit that my immediate, unreflected inclination revealed me to be more decidedly dangling on the end of the "sports-above-all" marionette: "It's a big deal. Great, human drama. Deserves priority. All else shall bow!"

As a matter of perspective, while I certainly love sports drama, competition has always been about something bigger: competitors mutually becoming the best versions of themselves. I'd much rather play a superior opponent who demolishes me but makes me better in the process, than to demolish someone else and have gained nothing.  I'm delighted that my sons have each other in this regard, to help each other become the best versions of themselves. Ultimately, sports are one vehicle among many to help one hone important life skills. This competitive instinct rightly conceived is the mechanism that forged and defines a great America. In short, sports is an important, formative opportunity for our children.

Back to the collision. Something didn't settle right. In the next instant I saw Made2Worship illuminated by the same criteria as the soccer practice: "Is M2W a big deal? Is it a great, human drama? Does it deserve priority?"

And I could palpably hear the voice or Howard Cosell:

"Good afternoon sports fans.  We are gathered here today on this momentous occasion to witness the event of the century, two colossal superpowers in their final date with destiny. In the left corner we have our undefeated and indefatigable super-contender, buoyed by the affection of the masses: Sports Event. And in the other corner, we have our consummate underdog, whose inevitable defeat is a foregone conclusion: Faith Event. Who will win? Who will lose? Stay tuned."

Keeping it real, we tip-toe lightly through these subjects. As my story suggests, we're humbly working them out ourselves. Questioning the cultural comfort zone is not easy. Ironically, it takes qualities honed in sports: vision to see, and courage to do.

More than just another institution, sports has become a thing unto itself. No longer are kids just practicing a month before the season. As early as fifth and sixth grade, and often many months before the season if not year-round, there are expectations for kids to be in training. When you reach high school, missing in action from year-round training often has repercussions for play time. 

Most revealing is the unwritten but unquestioned rule that if sports ever conflicts with any other commitment, sports must take priority. The other thing must bow. This prioritization has become culturally codified: When I was a kid Wednesdays were culturally respected as a day reserved for faith activity. No one would dare schedule an athletic or non-faith-oriented event. Not any more. In fact, now even Sunday has been assimilated - substantially claimed for both sports events and even training!  

The time-benefit ratio reveals the culture to be way out of kilter. Only a fraction will ever become a professional athlete, yet the total commitment requires laying down other good and important things on the high altar of sports. In fact, it seems as a culture we've forgotten other edifying human activities. Simply being together as family. Good conversation. Hikes. Reading books.  In this sense, for many, sports has become a religion, the center around which most everything else spins.

The tough questions are based upon this premise: How we spend our time, particularly what we schedule, reveals what's important to us. When it comes to a sports event, versus faith event, what typically wins? Which gets scheduled and commands our time and attention? Which gets set aside? Perhaps we're not even talking about a game, but "simply" a practice?  What wins?

It's worth asking, amidst all the other activities we commit to, are faith events even on our radars beyond Sunday? Do they compel our prioritization and commitment? How about family prayer - beyond the 30 second, fly-swatting variant?

Ironically, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in sports not shooting for the high-bar. Michael Jordan wasn't made famous for making uncontested layups. Hank Aaron wasn't made famous for smacking his grandma's pitches out of the park. The same analogies could be applied to work, or just about every other area of life. Given the respective end in mind (becoming our best selves "on earth as it is in heaven"), shouldn't we shoot for the faith high-bar?

Clearly, it's not enough to be merely physically present at a faith event; faith events invite us to be totally present to God: heart, mind, body and soul. So much more than mere obligation, when people are aware of their deepest needs, and come seeking God this way... they really encounter Him in an unsurpassing way. Nothing else could possibly take precedence.

Putting God first is practical, far more practical than any athletic event. We may have all the material blessing and abilities in the world, but if we're not putting God first, we're languishing. We may not understand it as such, but this languishing is often contained in wrappers that include phrases such as "my crazy schedule," or "all these activities," or "too busy," or "burnt out."

At the end of the day, our schedules proclaim values we've become beholden to. In a certain way they reveal our "god." And belief in any god always involves sacrifice, often of important things.

Let's be honest. If someone "can't make" a particular event because of something else, they're not saying it's not important, they're simply declaring something else more important. And if God is lower on that totem pole, as He is the Lord of Life, we're pushing real life out of the way. We're languishing.

The assumption here is that you need not unquestioningly "go with the flow." You are in the driver's seat. You're entrusted with the formation of your child's eternal soul.  No, putting faith first won't be easy.  Yes, you may have other parents who look at you funny when you prioritize a faith event over a sports event.  Yes, you will have to sacrifice other good, important things.  But YES!, all this is the heart of our human story, substantiated by thousands of years of human history: Putting God first, structuring our lives around Him by concrete commitments, often requiring sacrifice of other important things, will be a source of unparalleled blessing for us, our children and our communities in this world and the next.

In conclusion, when we discussed this with Joseph and John Paul, we were delighted that they "got it." As excited as they are about sports, they're equally enthused about our Made2Worship time. (We'll take equal interest any day!) We just pray this anchor serves us well as we endeavor to keep the foundational  family anchor firm... as we foray into potentially higher echelons of "sports religion" that are, should we say, not as forgiving.
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Preaching IT: "Would You Stand for Truth?" (Fr. Jonathan Schmolt)

Homily on The Memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist / Mark 6:17-29

When we remember today the Beheading of John the Baptist, we are challenged by a simple question, “Would we stand up for the truth if it meant our death?” John the Baptist challenged the man in leadership, Herod, because he was unlawfully married to his brother’s wife. The assumption here is Herod’s brother is still alive when this happened. John the Baptist was not afraid to point out this fact, knowing that challenging the governor could well mean his death.

Today, how many times are we willing to challenge others about the faith? If we feel the call of the Holy Spirit to speak the truth, would we respond? I know that I find myself hesitant to challenge others. I feel well trained by our society to keep the peace, don’t rock the boat, and keep my opinions to myself. However, if everyone simply keeps silent when sin occurs, then is it surprising that people take greater freedoms to not follow the teachings of God?

Any one of us can be called to speak the truth. Are we ready to respond? Would you or I be willing to be like John the Baptist and challenge the sinful actions of others? If God is calling you or me to respond, would we speak up? If you or I do not respond, who will?

Fr. Jonathan is parochial vicar at St. George Parish in Erie, Pennsylvania.


We believe that God purposefully designed us for a life of fulfillment in Him.  The Church has the mission of faithfully communicating the shape of this design.  Our acceptance or rejection of these truths is the hinge of life, determining whether our lives are fulfilled, or fall apart. We applaud priests who faithfully proclaim these truths, particularly those that are most challenging. As each of us are incomplete, we invite you to join us in the adventure of seeking and responding to this life-giving truth from our loving God

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