In my days as an evangelical Christian (and even occasionally in my decade as a Catholic), I have heard many a pastor suggest that we would get a lot more out of our attendance at Church if we treated it with the same enthusiasm we display toward sporting events. Some of these pastors, no doubt, would like to see the same kind of cheering in the pews as goes on in the bleachers; others just wish they could look out on Sundays in the Fall and not see so many parishioners in NFL jerseys reminding them silently what our culture thinks the Sabbath is REALLY about. I have thought about this question often, and I both agree and disagree with the sentiment that we should treat Sunday Mass like the Sunday Ticket. As such, here are five simple ways I think we could benefit from applying the same kinds of attitudes to Church as we do to professional football, followed by five ways we most definitely wouldn’t.
Five Attitudes We Have Toward Football that We Should Have Toward Church
1. Arrange Our Day Around It
In my time zone, the early games start at 1 p.m. That means I need to go to 11 a.m. Mass at the latest if I want to make sure that I’m there for kickoff. If I plan to watch the game socially, I need to make sure I have my faded throwback Cincinnati Bengals T-shirt clean and ready to go. I have my snack plan of attack arranged at least the night before so that I don’t have to waste precious time at the store on Sunday getting ingredients for wing sauce or my secret recipe homemade Chex Mix. I need to read at least a half a dozen articles telling me what to look for in today’s game. My day, essentially, is built around my beloved Bungles, and, as a result, my mood for the day and the rest of the week is influenced by what happens between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sundays. I suspect I am not alone in this.
What if we arranged our day, not around the game, but around attendance at Mass? I’m not saying don’t watch the game; I’m simply saying that we prioritize it properly. Many refer to their fandom as a “second religion,” which seems strange, since for many of us, based on the way we treat football on Sundays, it serves the function of a first religion. What if we made sure the night before that what we wanted to wear to Mass was clean, so that we could wear our reverence for Christ on our very bodies, instead of fumbling through our closets for that “cleanest dirty shirt” before heading out the door? What if we arranged our meal schedule on Sundays with Mass in mind rather than the game, and more diligently honored the Church’s call to fast for at least an hour before receiving Holy Communion? Would we be more likely to let our experience of the liturgy inform our mood for the rest of the week?
2. Defend the Rule Book
I cannot tell you how many times I have been watching a game when a referee has missed a holding call, or a BLATANTLY OBVIOUS pass interference, and the people with whom I was watching went absolutely insane. Football necessarily operates on a shared understanding of what you can and can’t do. We think of football as an epic battle, a sweeping spectacle, and not just a set of rules (although some may differ with me on that point). The rules are there to protect the players, to add to the enjoyment of the game, and to make sure that no matter what stadium the action is taking place in, everyone knows what’s expected, and what’s not allowed. You cannot make up rules as you go along; neither can you abandon them on a whim. The rules are sacred. We need referees to uphold them to make sure the game is what it is supposed to be.
Doesn’t that apply to Mass, too? We need priests to defend the sanctity of the liturgy as dearly as they possibly can. There may be a temptation to think that a tweak here or there might make Mass more appealing, or that less structure in the Mass might make people feel more comfortable. NEWS FLASH… Few things make us parishioners more uncomfortable than innovations in the liturgy. They make the Mass about the liturgical ministers and not the action on the altar, and that’s just as nerve-wracking as when a referee’s antics make them the center of the action on the field. Liturgical ministers serve an essential function; to make sure that the focus is on the sacred mysteries. YouTube is loaded with cringe worthy attempts at liturgical innovation. If the sacrament of the altar is the sacrament of unity, we need to be assured that there is consistency from parish to parish in regard to the Mass.
By consistency, I don’t mean that the rules should be objectified and robotically enforced, but that our love for the liturgy and what it brings about should make us want to defend everything that protects, preserves and honors what is most important about being there, namely the reception of the Eucharist. And just to make sure I’m not being misunderstood, I believe that when properly ordered, the liturgy can be honored, preserved and protected in Traditional Latin Masses in Cathedrals and Basilicas as well as in the vernacular on makeshift altars in combat zones, so long as strong attention to reverence for Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist is the primary guiding principle.
3. Talk About it the Next Day
This one is painfully obvious to me as a broadcaster. A single play in a big game can be discussed, analyzed, critiqued, and speculated upon for hours and days after the fact. We soak in what we saw on Sunday all week, until the next game. We discuss it around the water cooler, on message boards, and on call-in shows. What happened for three hours on a football field on Sunday can dominate our conversation for the entire week.
If you showed up on Monday morning at work or school, and someone were to ask you what the Gospel reading was at Mass over the weekend, would you be able to tell them? Were you paying attention enough during the homily to even be able to say honestly to your pastor on the way out, “good homily?” Would we post to social media our thoughts on what we experienced, the way we might post game highlights? Do we take what we get at Mass out into the world with us, or is it just an obligatory Sunday time filler?
4. Honor the Greats
World class performances on the field inspire us. We tell stories about legends of the game. We retire their numbers, and read interviews with them. We even erect statues of them outside of stadiums.
The NFL has been around for roughly one hundred years. Multiply that by twenty, and that’s how long the Church has been around. Over that time, she has been home to spiritual giants, whose holiness has impacted the world. There’s a reason we have statues of them in our Churches and in our homes. We should want to read what they wrote, to hear stories about them, to get to know them. And not all heroes of our faith have died yet-seek out those people who have a heart for Christ in our parishes, and learn what makes them great. Then go and practice those things and become great yourself.
5. Remember Why You’re Actually There
The game is not about the snacks. It is not about the face paint, the merchandise, the commercials or proving how loyal of a fan you are. To the dismay of many involved in halftime shows, it’s not even about musical performances (although some with marching band backgrounds would argue it’s all just a setup for their big moment). It’s about the action on the field. Take that away, and everything else is pointless.
Similarly, the Mass is not about your attitude, your favorite pew, the family with the misbehaving kids a few rows ahead of you, how much you put in the basket or how well you dress. To the dismay of many involved in liturgical music, it’s not even about that (although some with liturgical music backgrounds would argue it’s all just a setup for their big moment). It’s about the action on the altar. Take that away, and everything else is pointless.
Five Attitudes We Have Toward Football that We Should Not Have Toward Church
Now that I’ve mentioned a few ways in which I believe we should treat Mass like we do football games, I think it’s important to point out some ways in which we most definitely SHOULD NOT treat them the same.
1. DON’T Applaud Performances
Before anyone posts it in the comment box, I’ll go ahead and put here what Pope Benedict XVI had to say about clapping at Mass in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly—it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation.”
DO clap at the end of a Baptism, or Confirmation, or when a married couple is introduced as Man and Wife.
DO NOT clap at the end of the recessional song because Bob the liturgical musician did a sweet job on the bongos today. Sacraments are a divine achievement. Bob’s bongo contribution is a human achievement. Plus, you set an awkward precedent for Bob—what if one Sunday, after clapping for several successive weeks, you neglect to clap? Will Bob feel inadequate? Should we just clap at the end every week no matter what to avoid giving Bob a complex? If Bob has a bad bongo day and we still clap at the end, are we rewarding mediocrity?
I will cease my question begging here; I think you get the point.
2. DON’T Decide for Yourself When It’s Over
The game is not over when your team is losing by three touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter. It is not over when you find yourself falling asleep in your recliner. If you’re there in person, the game is not over just because people are starting to file out in order to beat the traffic rush. It is over when the clock hits straight zeros after the full complement of time has expired.
Similarly, the Mass is not over as soon as you receive Holy Communion. Nor is it over as soon as the recessional song starts. If you’re timing your exit in such a way that you can be mistaken for a member of the priest’s recessional entourage, take a deep breath, count to ten, and then make your move once Father has at least hit the foyer. Maybe even stay and pray a few sentences at the end of Mass before you leave your pew. That is, unless you’re afraid doing that will cut into your opportunity to hear retired players make noises with their mouths on the pregame show. In that case, by all means, make haste.
3. DON’T Be Tribalistic
It can be awfully easy to divide ourselves into warring camps, based on our preference for kinds of liturgy, our ideas on how to correct specific moral evils in society, and which political candidate we think will finally bring about the Kingdom of God right here on earth. I’m not saying it’s not important to stand up for what’s right and defend the Church, nor am I saying that you should never question the prudential decisions of your priest or bishop. I’m just saying that we should appeal to our common ground before appealing to our rivalry.
I’ve seen way too many internet conversations between Catholics who believe heartily in Christ and the Church he founded go off the rails and descend rapidly into tribal warfare. This isn’t Bears vs Packers, people.
4. DON’T Be Elitist Toward Those Who Don’t Understand What’s Going On
If you’re a loyal Churchgoer, and you encounter someone who was raised Catholic and hasn’t been to Mass in years, it can be tempting to look down your nose at them. They may say things like, “it was boring,” “I didn’t understand what was happening,” “I didn’t feel included,” or any of a number of “I” statements that would never deter you from regular Mass attendance. After all, you are one of the precious chosen few God has selected to preserve from eternal hellfire, right? Why be bothered with the concerns of the unwashed?
Never forget that an awful lot of people only ever get to Mass once in their lives. What are they seeing when they go? Imagine if you were immersed in a completely foreign culture, and none of the natives sensed your confusion and offered to acknowledge it, or even paid you mind at all? This is the experience many take away from Mass the first time they go. It was certainly my experience the first several times I went. Had it not been for my own personal research into what was going on, I’d probably still be in the dark.
There are also millions of “cradle Catholics” who were sacramentalized but not catechized, and know just enough about the Mass to be dangerous when they write Op-Ed columns for the local paper. We read them, our elitism kicks in, and sometimes we don’t even want them to understand, because their ongoing ignorance serves as a continual reminder of our genius.
Of course, everyone has to eventually learn how to understand the Mass and own their experience of it, but do we really need to treat them like second-class citizens until they do? What if this is the Christmas, or the Easter, or the funeral or wedding when the Holy Spirit finally breaks through to them and they find themselves dumbstruck in front of the Eucharist, echoing the words of St. Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord and my God?”
If the Mass is truly that important to us, we should want to share it with everyone. Our attitude toward those who don’t seem to get what’s going on should be one of invitation and welcome. We never know what kind of work the Holy Spirit may be doing behind the scenes.
5. DON’T be a Fairweather Fan
When our teams are winning, it’s much easier to stick with them.
It’s much more comfortable to admit to being a Mass-going Catholic when Pope Francis is making positive headlines and has a soaring approval rating. When the Church is in the news for horrible things that her members have done, or when her leadership gets caught in political crossfire, our tendency can be to downplay our loyalties.
It’s a fact that we all know intuitively, but still bears repeating: the Church has endured heresy, persecution, scandal, revolution, you name it, and remains standing two millennia after her founding by Christ himself. It can be easy to cite a negative experience at a parish, or a frustrating conversation with a priest, or any number of complaints as reasons why we don’t feel like going to Mass.
I personally find that sticking to the Mass no matter what external or internal voices try to deter me can be extremely spiritually rewarding, even and especially when those voices are at their loudest. Way more rewarding, by the way than sticking with my Bengals during another season without a playoff win.
Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list of ways to compare Mass attendance to professional football; no doubt in reading it, you’ve come up with some points of your own. Please share them in the comments and keep the conversation going!