There are a lot of Sundays at Mass time when some truths may not be spoken out of fear of being devoured on social media or on a radio programme. So we tend to let obvious difficulties just slip by. One of these is the interplay between sport and the faith and worship life of a parish community.
There is a lot of historical evidence to say that sport and church were once close cousins in a cultural revival in Ireland. After all, Croke Park is named after a famous Archbishop! I was taught for a few years by the late Fr Michael O’Brien who trained Farranferris teams to Munster and All-Ireland hurling triumphs and followed up this trend with winning teams at Blackrock, UCC and Cork Senior Hurlers. Several GAA clubs owe much of their origins and development to the passionate engagement of local priests in building up their clubs, teams and facilities at at time when both priests and time were plenty! The alliance between the GAA and the local parish was, arguably, so strong that the meaning of the word parish in most people’s minds is a geographical area whose boundaries are critical for sport membership. People played for “the parish”, fought for “the parish” and trained for the honour of “the parish”. There was no need to point out that parish was really a community of believing people who pray together because people prayed and then played as two sides of the same parish coin.
That was then.
Today, any credible links between the GAA or other sports organisations and the Catholic Church are, to say the least, coincidental or very slight. The Catholic Archbishop of Cashel is the patron of the GAA but on All-Ireland Sundays he stands on the presentation area as a token to a bye-gone era when the patron used to throw in the ball and make a speech. Now he is silent and looking lost. (Fortunately, at this year’s hurling final, his reason for being there could be attributed to his link with the winning county!) And, it’s perhaps, no bad thing that the era of this easy patronising is let go. As a youngster, I listened to matches being introduced by Micheál Ó Hehir’s inimitable voice as he called us to attention for the playing of the National Anthem by the Artane Boys Band. How could we have ever imagined the terrible truths of the suffering and deprivation inflicted on the same boys when they returned ‘home’ to the industrial school in Artane where society had parked them and forgotten about them — except for their few marching tunes on All-Ireland days? When the qualified counties raced to Dublin, respective bishops and priests vied for the privilege of getting to celebrate the team Mass on the morning of the All-Irelands in a clerical one-upmanship and get to give the first homiletic team-talk — not in the dressing room but at the altar.
At local level nowadays very few priests have time to be involved with sports clubs at any significant level. As the age of clergy increases, there are very few priests of the age-group that used to play with teams and coach them. And with their thinking informed by the aftermath of the abuse scandals there’s a hardly a priest who would go within a mile of an under-age game or competition nowadays. And sports clubs for their part are generally happy to let this trend become a rift. Many mentors are not part of the church community any more and some are hostile towards the church. Hence the ever more common occurrence of matches and sports events being scheduled at the same time as Mass.
I’m not calling for a return to any so-called “good old days”. Many people who are supporters and participants at sports events are not church-going. However, there is an increasing burden — an unfair one, in my view — on the families who wish to be active in both. Our parish invests a lot of time and energy in organising opportunities for children and young people in our parish to be actively involved in the way we celebrate the weekend liturgies. An active parish assembly, aided by several other adults in our parish, and with the support of parents ensure that we have rotas for children and young people to be involved in: bringing forward the offertory gifts, being altar servers, singing with the junior choirs, leading the Prayer of the Faithful and reading the second scripture reading at Mass.
Most parents and their children are very faithful at playing their part and taking their turn. Parents say it; coordinators sigh about it; congregations notice it: when there is an under-age match at the same time as Mass, the pressure is on. And parents say it’s not fair. Some families have to split into two cars, one going in each direction. Others don’t have that choice. They want their sons and daughters to appreciate that being faithful to Mass is important and at least as important as sport. But they also know that if they don’t turn up and drive their child to the match – even if it’s just a challenge game – the youngster may loose their place on the team. Parents who go to church are, in effect, being bullied into skipping church because, increasingly, matches are scheduled on Saturday evenings and on Sunday mornings at the same time as Mass. And that’s fine for people who don’t go to church. It gives them something to fill their Sunday mornings with and be home for dinner. But it’s divisive in a community and it’s poisonous in a parish.
A lot has changed.We have come a long way. But we still have a way to go to a mature and balanced pluralist society where everyone’s choices can be valued and made freely without fear or favour. After all wasn’t freedom to worship without reprisal one of the aspirations that fired the founding fathers of some of our national sporting and cultural organisations!