All are born with the desire for God

“My child is involved with sports; it’s really going to be hard for him to go to Religious Education.” This is a common lament thrown in the face of our parish leaders these days. The domestic Church has been struggling with the question of what takes priority, faith or sports. It is as if youth sports are the Baal of this generation, filling its voracious appetite with our children’s time and talent. With all of these professional and college level athletes being showcased it is no wonder that young people want to devote all of their time and energy to the elusive dream of becoming superstar. Not wanting to discourage their young from pursuing their dreams, parents are faced with the dilemma of fitting life into their children’s sports schedule. This sets up the epic battle between Church and sports.

Most parish leaders feel that the Church is on the losing end of the struggle for the souls of our little athletes. Maybe parents think that sports offer a tangible reward that is more measurable than the prospect of eternal Salvation. The children gain in self-esteem and they can see the benefit of physical health more clearly than Spiritual well-being. Parents are also out of control of their schedules and rather than do a schedule cleanse they choose the path of least resistance, which usually means giving up Mass. It is clear that the prevailing attitude is that the choice between Church and sports is an either/or proposition.

Even if parents do not believe that their children are the next amazing athlete to come along, they seem to devote a great deal of time and effort to an activity that will be a small part of their children’s adult life. Only a small percentage of young athletes go on to play at a high level in college or professionally, and it doesn’t necessitate giving up Church. Many of the families that produce these super athletes are very devout in their faith. Given the number of professional and college athletes who publicly profess their faith, it would seem that parents have been misled about the path that must be taken to make their children successful.

I have had a unique perspective on this dilemma because I worked with youth in the parish and also as a high school coach. In those 25-plus years of working with athletes there has been a handful that went on to play Division 1 college sports and even fewer who became professionals. Three families in particular come to mind because they each produced multiple professional athletes. These three families went to Mass on Sunday, sent their children to Religious Education or Catholic school, and all of their children received the Sacraments without any special accommodation by the parish. These families went to Mass daily, and were actively involved in parish ministries. Why were they able to live a life devoted to their children’s sport without sacrificing the practice of their faith? It is highly unlikely that coaches reworked their practice and game schedules to accommodate these gifted young athletes, but their parents were committed enough to their faith to go out of their way to find a way to hand it on to their children. 

Those families that managed to keep faith in their lives while guiding their children to a successful sports career did not go through a special program that their church designed. Their faith came from within. The answer comes from Jesus’ Own method of inviting people to follow Him into a life of discipleship. He had no program, but His message was compelling. He changed lives by His encounter with people, and they in turn told others the reason for their joy. When we gather the parents together for meetings, why waste the moment by focusing on the details of the program? They can read about how to register, what meetings to attend, how much to pay and all those other odds and ends. What a difference it would make if we stood before these parents and told them, unabashedly, about when and how we first encountered Jesus. How this encounter made us want to know Him better. We could tell them that now that we have come to know Jesus, we are hungry for the Eucharist, and wouldn’t dream of missing Mass. If we could get one of those parents of the talented athletes to do this for us what a powerful witness this would be!

Not everyone is born with the gifts and talents to be a super athlete, but everyone is born with the desire for God. This desire for God cannot be filled by anything that we have created, but we can turn everything that we create into a means to give glory to God. This simple adjustment could turn our little athletes into dedicated disciples.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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