Bishop Hying

Consider what sports can teach us about Christian community and the practice of faith

       As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on March 12, 2017   


       Sports have been on my mind lately, as I recently attended the annual sportsmanship dinners for high school basketball teams in the region, as well as the always-spirited basketball game between Andrean and Bishop Noll High Schools. I also blessed our CYO offices in Merrillville and met with Paul Wengel and the staff, who make our diocesan sports programs effective and fun. 

       Participative sports for children, and professional sports for entertainment, have certainly grown dramatically in cultural importance in the United States. The levels of money, time and commitment given to sports by schools, parents, students and the general public probably dwarf just about every other expenditure.

       Many parents I know spend a significant amount of their time driving their children to practices and games and staying to attend competitions, which often last all weekend. What can we learn from this phenomenon?

       Practicing a sport and playing competitively on a team teaches many skills - team work, discipline, dedication, humility, belonging, generosity, perseverance and the needful art of losing a game with grace and courtesy. Athletics also get our children physically active and playing outside, two necessities in the virtual world of computers and social media.

       Sports are healthy, positive and safe activities which build character by engaging our youth in something larger than just themselves. Athletics have much to teach.

       When I lived in Wisconsin, I would sometimes preach the following homily during the “sacred” season of Packers football.  Imagine there will be only one Mass in the entire state of Wisconsin next Sunday, held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The outside temperature will be 30 degrees, with a brisk wind. The Mass will last three hours; you’ll spend four hours in the car to get there and back. And, you will put $100 in the collection basket when it comes around. 

       Would you go to that Mass?

       This humorous scenario would always get a laugh, but it also communicates several messages worth pondering. I find some striking parallels between large sporting events and religious liturgy. In both, significant numbers of people gather together, united, to participate in a ritualized activity carried out in the public arena, which offers some level of community, meaning, connection, peace and cohesion. 

       In both, people repeat the same activity over and over, as the essential structure and rules of every liturgy and game are the same. Both religious worship and play are non-productive in the sense that no commodity is made, nothing practical, in a worldly way, is accomplished. 

       A question that challenges any religious congregation is why increasing numbers of people in America find the ritual of sports more worthy of their time, money and passion than the rituals of religion.  One could point, I suppose, to the entertainment element, the increased secularity in our culture and the fact that watching sports puts little moral demand on the observer, or any number of factors, but the question still remains a good one that we need to honestly grapple with.

       How do we so engage our people and the broader society with the exciting power of the Gospel, the transforming love of Christ and the grace of Christian community so that those disengaged from the Church would be at least half as committed to the practice of faith as they may be to the pursuit of sport? 

       A great comic strip pictures two priests sitting at a ball game. One says to the other, “I’m not really interested in baseball but I just want to sit with a group of people that are excited and passionate about something!”   

       What if everybody was as fired up about the victory of Christ over sin and death as the victory of the Cubs in the World Series? What if Mass engaged our young people as much as a volleyball tournament or soccer match? What if we happily spent as much money on the poor as we do on a Bulls game?

       Please do not conclude that I am against sports in any way, whether playing or watching. I enjoy every game I go to, be it be hockey, baseball, basketball or football. I think sports have much to teach us about life and the formation of character. Physical activity keeps us healthy in every way - physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. 

       Nor do I mean to guilt anybody about the amount of time and money they may spend on sports. I just wonder what the huge popularity of sports may have to teach us about the practice of faith and the building of Christian community. 

       Looking at the future of our diocese through the lens of the synod process, I ask how we might get more people involved in the “game?” What can we do better to create an environment in which more people fall in love with the Lord and encounter that sense of comm, connection and peace they may discover at a football game? 

       Fun is the happy by-product of an activity which fully engages us in a deeply satisfying and joyous way.  Doesn’t that sound like the definition of discipleship in the Lord?


       + Donald J. Hying

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