I used to be one of those catechists with no patience for kids’ sports. I believed in the value of athletics, I really did, but disapproved of the modern sports industry’s drain on society. People who organized their lives around their kids’ games and practices were wrong-headed, period.
Then I had a kid who begged for three years straight to please be allowed to try a team sport — any sport at all, she just really, really wanted to be on a team. That gateway drug of athletics, free summer practice, fell in our laps. We committed to two months and no more. And now I can explain to you why you are wrong-headed when you pit Church vs. Athletics.
Kids Want to Do Hard Things
Do you know another thing my junior athlete did? She co-founded a parish ministry. At the end of fifth grade she sat on the church playground talking a mom of younger children in the parish, coming up with an idea for having parish families meet once a week for faith formation, academics, Adoration, Mass, and social time, faithfully Catholic but open to all-comers.
If the parents had to work the bureaucracy, it was the elementary schoolers who gave shape to the nuts and bolts of the ministry.
And for this they had to fight. Over and over and over again my daughter saw how adults at every level of the church administration wanted to shut down a ministry that was operating under the complete supervision of the pastor, was explicitly open to every member of the parish (and got some great inter-generational participation as a result), and was in no way undermining any other parish or diocesan ministry.
Year after year my daughter tried different avenues for getting involved in parish life doing hard things. Year after year, roadblocks came up. Eventually she got the message: Kids who are serious about the faith aren’t welcome in the Catholic Church.
In contrast, over in the sports world, hard work and dedication was consistently welcomed and rewarded. So that’s where she wants to be.
Kids Want to Be Themselves
When pastors and parish staff grumble about “sports,” something they overlook is that “sports” isn’t one single thing. There are sports for every interest, body type, and personality, and leagues at every level of competitiveness. You can be an elite ballerina or a rec bowler, and it’s all generic “sports” to the naysayers if it gets in the way of their plans for you.
Year after year my kids have listened to adults in authority tell them how beneficial it will be for them to commit two hours a week to sitting in classes they could literally teach themselves — as one honest catechist used to say with admiration to a child of mine. These adults do not sit in the classes they so merrily foist on children whose names they can’t keep straight. Staff time is valuable. Children’s time is not.
The kids aren’t lazy. They are choosing to spend their time on activities that are intellectually and physically demanding, often having to skip a friend’s birthday party or go without luxuries other kids enjoy because the family budget will only allow so much. Trust me: If the only sport on offer was 2nd grade kickball, very few kids would be sacrificing for it. Kids sacrifice for sports because athletics are one of the few venues where kids can take control of their formation and push themselves to make the most of their own personal talents and abilities and gifts.
Kids Want Competence
Coaches aren’t getting rich in children’s athletics. Most are volunteers, and even those at higher levels who are getting a stipend have to support themselves with a full-time day job. The question athletes ask isn’t, “What kind of degrees do you have in this field?” They just want proof you are a good coach.
When a team has a lousy coach, players vote with their feet. A lousy club or league doesn’t hold onto athletes.
This is exactly like catechesis. The difference is that because Church culture opposes personal growth and initiative (witness the resistance my daughter faced when she tried to meet with her friends to study the faith outside of the mandated religious-ed program), there aren’t “other teams” to turn to if a given program or instructor doesn’t work out for you.
Sadly, the monopoly of the local parish program’s age-mandated classing system creates incompetence. It does this because no one teacher can be the best at meeting every child’s needs. Just like some coaches are better at preparing future Olympic gymnasts and others are better at getting a pile of nervous t-baller’s to look at the ball, every catechist has strengths and weaknesses. If you were told you had to meet the spiritual needs of every child in your neighborhood who was born in a certain 12-month span, you’d fail too. It’s an impossible job.
Children Have Bodies
Do you know who is jealous of the human body? Satan.
Humans use our bodies to express our souls. We are unlike any other creature, having both a rational immortal soul and a physical body that will be resurrected and endure for all eternity in its glorified form. What we do with our bodies matters, so learning to use our bodies well is important. To hate the body is to hate the person.
This doesn’t mean the body is more important than the soul. It isn’t. Parishes need to up their game significantly when it comes to caring for children’s souls. But sports isn’t competition. We live in a society which offers few options for helping children develop physically. The era when children grew in strength and endurance and agility by helping out with farm chores or physically-demanding skilled manual labor has largely passed.
As a teacher, I beg my restless students to go out for a sport every season, just so they can get the hours of running-around time they need so they are calm enough to sit still in class. Kids (and adults) need physical activity in order to function well because we are made for it.
Kids Have Souls
What is the proper response of the Church to “competition” from sports? The Church needs to do her own job. Kids and parents don’t take faith formation seriously because parishes don’t take it seriously.
Unfortunately, at every level the credibility of church leaders has been lost. After enough years of being told they should want to live on a diet of spiritual pablum, children quit believing their pastors.
Teenagers accuse “You don’t trust me!” and parents rightly observe that trust is earned. Pastors must hold themselves to the same standard. If your parish has only offered twaddle, kids and parents aren’t going to jump every time you announce a hot new thing is going to be great. The American youth sports edifice wasn’t born in six months, and the rebuilding of evangelization won’t happen instantly either.
As good as sports are, we should be gravely concerned when parents and children neglect their souls in favor of their bodies. It is a profound and shameful problem.
But the solution isn’t for parish staff to take children’s bodies less seriously. The solution is to take children’s souls more seriously.