At St. John the Evangelist in Boca Raton, Fla., the policy is clear — only four absences allowed from religious education courses per year. Mass attendance is required.
Students who fail to comply with the parish’s attendance requirements may face delayed sacramental preparation, but the parish’s stance is firm: “Sporting activities and dance classes in no way outrank religious education as priority items,” its parent handbook reads. “Please don’t confuse your child by placing these activities before the message of Jesus.”
Caught in between
The conflict between youth sport schedules and church obligations is a perennial issue, said Lori Dahlhoff, executive director of the religious education department for the Arlington, Va.-based National Catholic Educational Association. She faced the quandary when she began working in parishes two decades ago, and it’s a challenge faith formation directors still lament. Some pastors and parish leaders fear sports are replacing religion’s role in American culture. Traditionally, Sunday was a day of rest (see sidebar). Now it’s open for practices, games and tournaments. Weekday evenings, once available for church activities, fare worse.
When it comes to scheduling, many families feel caught between their church and team, and religious obligations often lose out.
According to the March issue of the Review of Religious Research, a recent survey of 16 declining Protestant church congregations in the United States and Canada found “competing Sunday activities” were responsible for declining worship attendance, with many respondents pointing to sports.
“Most families don’t see religious education as a priority,” said Alice Sennott, a religious education director who developed St. John the Evangelist’s handbook. “Most families see it as one thing among many.”
Across the country, Catholic parishes are seeking new approaches to deal with the challenge, which religious education directors estimate is growing. Some, like St. John the Evangelist, offer online coursework. Others have switched from yearlong schedules to multi-week series to accommodate students during sports off-seasons.
St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, Minn., offers the same courses multiple times each week. At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hiawatha, Iowa, students can attend a weeklong summer program.
The best parish models are those that are creative and flexible, providing programs “at multiple times, in multiple ways,” Dahlhoff said.
“They’ve taken seriously the Church’s direction in that we’re supposed to work with families in raising their children, and sports have a lot of value,” she said.
Working with families
The best models also don’t pit sports against the parish, or shame families who struggle to fulfill Mass or religious instruction obligations because of sports schedules, she said. That approach can alienate families, some of whom don’t believe the parish would try to accommodate their challenges.
Instead, parish leaders should talk with families in order to learn their needs and identify ways to help, she said.
That is the approach taken by Charles da Silva in Providence, R.I. The pastoral associate for faith formation and parish organization at St. Pius V, da Silva holds religious education classes on Sunday mornings. For most families, attendance has not been difficult. He accommodates one family whose sixth-grade daughter has a demanding basketball schedule by supporting their decision to teach at home. However, the student will begin preparing for confirmation next year, and she will need to be in the classroom to meet parish requirements, he said.
Home-based courses might be the best option for busy sports families, said Rose Wieschhaus, director of religious education at Sts. Joachim and Ann in St. Charles, Mo., and a recent National Catholic Educational Association honoree.
“The Catholic Church teaches that parents are the primary educators when it comes to their children’s faith and religious education,” she said. “What they say and do is far more influential than what [their children] will hear or do in class.”
As parents continue to juggle activities competing for their time, Dahlhoff advises parishes to adhere to church requirements for sacramental preparation, but not put unnecessary requirements on students or families.
“What the Church requires is usually much less than most programs do,” she said.
Maria Wiering writes from Maryland.