Local Catholic schools opt to limit Sunday sports

| August 28, 2014 | 0 Comments


Athletic directors at several Catholic elementary schools told The Catholic Spirit that, while their schools and parishes have no written policy about when sports teams may play or practice, many tend to allow no sports activity before noon on Sundays.

That’s the case at Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights, where Dan Couillard has been the athletic director for 27 years. No games or practices are scheduled until Masses are over Sunday mornings, Couillard said.

Rob Peterson, who has been athletic director at Highland Catholic in St. Paul for nine years, said the only policy in the handbook is that sports activities are at the discretion of the principal and athletic director, so with that authority he tries to steer coaches away from Sunday practices.

Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan has put the policy in writing.

Athletic Director Tamra Paschall reported, “Our activities handbook states, ‘Sunday is reserved for family and faith time. Faithful Shepherd Catholic School makes every effort to not schedule practices or games on Sundays.’?”

Faithful Shepherd is one of the many schools whose teams participate in sports through the Catholic Athletic Association.

The 65-year-old organization that includes both Catholic and non-Catholic elementary schools, primarily in the east metro area, has no policy about Sunday games, “but I try to make it a policy,” said CAA Director Mark Courtney.

“At the CAA, we’re big on going to church,” Courtney said, “so about the only things we schedule on Sundays are some soccer and our [championship] finals.”

West of the Mississippi, the South Side Youth Organization, which has 15 Catholic elementary schools among its 22 members, schedules no games on Sunday.

It’s an informal policy, according to Wanda Hagerty of the SSYO.

And the Msgr. Coates Youth Organization — Minneapolis’ MCYO — has no official policy against Sunday games.

Mark Kenney, veteran athletic director at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, said the MCYO’s informal policy is not to schedule games on Sundays.

“Field availability can sometimes be a factor in fall and spring sports being played Sundays,” Kenney said, “but it’s something we try to avoid.”

Balancing act

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has no formal policy with regard to school sports on Sunday, said Gary Wilmer, assistant superintendent for governance and human relations.

Wilmer, former principal of St. Charles Borromeo School, said when the topic has come up in the past, people have expressed concerns about preserving the faith tradition and keeping Sunday relaxed and enjoyable.

Wilmer said he could reason from the other side that the games are fun, family times.

Both Couillard at Immaculate Conception and Peterson at Highland Catholic pointed to issues they deal with in scheduling games and practices for multiple teams — having only one gym and coordinating the schedules of volunteer coaches.

But, Peterson said, “One thing I try to do is to tell coaches that, if they have a Sunday practice, not to make it mandatory.”

That’s echoed by Kathleen O’Hara, principal of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park.

“At St. Vincent’s we make a special effort to encourage families to prioritize Sunday Mass. We don’t have sporting events on Sunday mornings (or holy days of obligation). If time or facility availabilities make Sunday the best option for the team, we will allow tryouts or practices on a Sunday afternoon or early evening; however, these practices are optional and students are not penalized for their excused absence.”

Tournaments at Catholic schools are often played Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but that’s not the case at Transfiguration in Oakdale.

“We don’t have a written policy, but it is more of an unwritten policy that we hold to,” explained athletic director Matt Weingartz. “We host volleyball and basketball tournaments throughout the year, and as the athletic director, I’m in charge of running these tournaments. I specifically stay away from Sundays for games and make sure that all games are concluded by Saturday.”

Weingartz said he has heard a lot of positive feedback from parents who liked that Sundays were not used for tournament games.

“With all the busy schedules,” he added, “it allows one day a week to be with family.”


Comments from Logan Crotty, junior high youth minister at St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview, about the impact youth sports have on church involvement, including Mass

Sports, in general, prevent/ obstruct the involvement of youth in any youth ministry activities/ presence in the parish.

As a life-long competitive athlete myself, I struggled to remain committed in Mass attendance, with no guarantee of available time on Sundays (due to consistent tournaments). I even struggled to complete my confirmation preparation because of a rigorous sports schedule that crept into late Sunday evenings, when our sessions were. I would miss Mass, and then my mom would take us all to confession before the next Sunday, or we would sit in the pew shamefully, knowing we could not receive [Holy Communion].

I know that this was the case for many others as well. In the athletic world, it has become “all or nothing.” Either you give yourself entirely to the sport, or you will not ever make the varsity starting line (especially within large suburban communities where training costs are not a deterrent).

As for the St. Odilia youth, I see them struggling to find their place in all of it. Our Summer Stretch days ended intentionally (and promptly) at 4:30 p.m. to accommodate 5 p.m. sports practices. (We’d return each afternoon on time (even early) to a parking lot full of cars ready and waiting to leave the moment the children were off the bus).

I saw the high school students miss sessions, not because they were uninterested or lacking commitment, but because sports took precedence (even something as simple as weightlifting or optional conditioning).

There are a lot of unwritten rules in the world of sports, which, if not followed, can spoil your chances at playing time and placement on elite teams.

But getting at the heart of this article, at the Mass, and whether or not they are making it, my observation would be, not always. Even convicted Catholic families are struggling to put their love of the Lord and commitment to the faith behind their commitment to sports. “It’s so hard,” I’ve heard them say. It is not apathy. It is a skewed list of priorities.

“Last Chance Mass” as it was named, at the University of St. Thomas, was a saving grace for me. It was at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Still an athlete then, I had optional practices on Sundays, meaning that I never had to worry about making Mass — it was almost at 10 p.m.! That seemed to be huge for many. It was created for athletes, and it really sustained many of them. I still see a number of people from that Mass now, in their post-athletic phase of life, attending regular Masses, but still attending!

We had Alyssa Bormes, author of “The Catechism of Hockey,” come in to speak to our parents about this very tension, and using the commitment to sports as a recipe for commitment to the Church.

St. Paul uses athletic metaphors throughout the epistles. There are wonderful lessons to be learned through committed athletic experiences. My hope is just that this will find its proper place in people’s day to day lives, and that the Lord would always have the throne of our hearts.


Scott Kieffer, senior high youth minister at St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview, responded to questions from The Catholic Spirit about youth sports. Below is an edited version of the Q and A. Kieffer noted that his responses are primarily from his experiences prior to his employment at St. Odilia.

Q. Is youth sports on Sundays an issue impacting Mass attendance at your parish? Heard from any parents about struggling to get to Mass because of their children’s games or practice schedule?

A. Absolutely it impacts Mass attendance! Youth sports is the #1 reason I have heard from families that they cannot make Mass or do not go to Mass, not just in recent years, but going as far back as when I was in high school (2001 on). And whatever the #2 reason is, it’s not even close.

I’d estimate that as high as 80 percent of the teens I spoke with who don’t go to Mass regularly said it’s because of sports schedules (either theirs or their siblings). If you remove those who say their families don’t even care about going to church (wouldn’t go even if they had nothing else going on all weekend) the percentage would be higher still.

Another impact is how many families don’t have sports actually conflicting with Mass, but are so exhausted from the sports events filling every other second of their weekend that they use Mass times as their one break in the weekend. Between all-day Saturday tournaments, Sunday afternoon sports, etc., some of those families don’t come Sunday morning because it’s the only time they have to “be together” or “get some rest” before another week starts.

The sports not meeting Sunday morning are usually doing so in response to parents complaining/struggling, but when they schedule every other time slot instead it doesn’t really solve the issue.

And the saddest part is probably how rarely I hear from parents about struggling with this anymore.

Five years ago, ten, yes, I heard about it. At this point it seems like most parents have given up the struggle, either stopping high school sports altogether (the more rare approach) or they have stopped trying to make it to Mass during sports season (the more common approach). And with how popular the year-round “travel leagues” or “state teams” are, “sports season” is about 51 weeks a year right now (4th of July week seems sacred in Minnesota with our cabin-dwellers; Easter/Christmas not as much).

Q. What are your thoughts about youth sports on Sunday, especially Sunday mornings?

A. I think it’s a huge problem and a huge barrier to teens getting more involved in their faith.

There are admittedly a lot of benefits of being in youth sports, and I don’t want the Church to seem like the rival to sports (nor do I feel we’d “win” that culture battle right now).

But it used to be that sports met five-six times a week in high school, and that was enough to be “highly competitive.” Some sports leagues/teams now have over seven meetings/practices a week now (doing “two-a-days” on Saturday or Sunday) and most do at least something on Sunday.

The amount of practice/commitment required for a “competitive team” keeps going up, and for a teen to stay on that team and contribute the amount of time they have to devote is significantly more than it was even a decade or two ago. As the competitiveness increases, so does the time commitment.

The sad truth is that almost none of these students will get any kind of scholarship to college for this or play professionally. Those two goals are why so many parents commit the time.

I spent a week after college (short-term job) helping a film crew do “highlight reels” for football players to send to prospective colleges (trying to get scholarship). We had about 300 students that week pay for the highlight reels, I think the cost was about $300. The crew director said that only three of the students had an actual chance at any scholarship. The other 297 were throwing money down the drain, chasing a “false God” that they weren’t going to attain.

Q. Have you preached about this or addressed the issue in any way?

A. Unfortunately, the problem is so widespread that I don’t feel there is a lot we can do about it as ministry personnel — or at least, what we can do about it pales in comparison to the issue.

Most these parents (of high schoolers) made up their minds years ago about whether they would go along with sports or go to Mass, so coming down “too hard” on youth sports tends to alienate that majority and get them upset with us “for not understanding” — in which case they stop coming to youth group/class and go elsewhere (where they won’t hear about sports) so we lose the chance to impact them at all.

So we have to try and influence people’s decisions/opinions more slowly and subtely, stressing the importance of mass and teaching about its meaning, having topics/teachings/youth nights about how important discipleship is and prioritizing Christ.

Talking directly with parents about these subjects has the best result usually (as it can embolden them to choose Mass over sports, and their decision can affect multiple teens). I’ve even seen parents in confirmation group together to stand up to a coach here and there, and get a tournament date moved or get a travel team to skip a tournament.

They’ve not succeeded in getting Sunday mornings back, but they’ve gotten “off” from a few all-day Sunday events or gotten off for church holidays or confirmation. These felt like victories, as small as they may be.

But the vast majority of our high school teens are involved heavily in sports and refuse to listen to anything “too preachy” about it, so it’s slow work.

Q. Have you scheduled Mass at different hours to make it easier to attend for those with scheduling issues?

A. St. Hubert’s had the Sunday night Mass for other reasons initially (it started as a “teen Mass” that was markedly different from the other times), but now it basically serves as the Mass for those who are busy Sunday morning (usually from sports) or those who “need to sleep in” on Sunday (usually from being tired with sports or from something else Saturday night.

So the fact that they kept the 6 p.m. time (after it stopped being a youth Mass) was at least partially to accommodate those folks.

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