I had the privilege of offering a few words at the Levittown/Island Trees Youth Sports Council a week ago and the words I offered were from my “boss” (Pope Francis) who is a fervent supporter of sports. As he said in one of his talks, “Every sport has its worth — not just in physical and social benefits, but also morally in the ways it can offer people, especially young people, a chance to experience a more balanced life, self-control, sacrifice and loyalty toward others.”
I could see the folks nodding in agreement, for coaches and sports coordinators know all the benefits of sports that the pope spoke of. Yet I also brought a challenging quote from him too. If sports can lead to a “more balanced life” it could also lead to imbalance as well. He urged young people not to let sports get in the way of studying for school and he added, “Never let practice and competition get in the way of going to church, being with friends and helping the poor.”
Now if I ever get a chance to meet Pope Francis, I am going to tell him that sports on Long Island do not get in the way of helping the poor. Countless teams run fund-raisers, food drives, and tournaments that help the less fortunate.
I’d also tell Pope Francis that instead of getting in the way of friendships, sports often lead to life-long friendships in a community. I suspect he’d caution again letting our friendships around sports teams become exclusive and clique-like, as we ought not neglect other opportunities for community and friendship.
But as to the “letting practices and competition get in the way of going to church,” then I’m afraid I’d be rather embarrassed to tell him how sports has replaced going to church in so many families. I noticed that few families came to pray at our church in the summertime. I know some went away on vacation. Yet I saw children and families who belong to the parish I serve more times at the pools, gym and ball fields all summer than I was able to pray with them in church. I really missed that.
I explained to the leaders and coaches that one thing we pride ourselves in Levittown — and I know this is true in other Long Island communities as well — is our traditional values. Levittown was basically founded by and for veterans. Our Memorial Day parade is an outstanding celebration of Americana — even when it rains. We value our freedoms — freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom to worship. It it’s that last one that has almost disappeared among the young.
There is no governmental dictatorship that prevents us from worshipping. Yet I think many people are being dictated to by an anti-traditional American culture that says, “You don’t need to worship with your children any more. There is no value in making the time for one hour a week to pray to God together.”
Now if I ask people if they believe there is no need for religion in their lives, they assure me that they hold religion dear. (Who’s going to say otherwise to a pastor?) But what we spend out time doing shows our real values. What we let slide isn’t really important.
I hope all who commit themselves to playing and supporting sports might bring back the balance that Pope Francis speaks of. I know that one hour of prayer together hardly is equal to the countless hours of practice and games each week, but it’s an easy start.
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