Vigneron: Sunday sports out of bounds for Catholic teams

Gregg Krupa Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Haydon Burke, a senior at Gabriel Richard Catholic High School, leaps to make a catch during baseball practice in Riverview, Wednesday.

Detroit — The commandment is still third on the list of ten, a simple imperative: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.”

Archbishop Allen Vigneron says when it comes to scheduling sports in the Catholic High School Sports League or, for younger athletes in the Catholic Youth Organization, it's now never on Sunday.

Games and practices will have to take place on the other six days of the week, according to a pastoral note issued Wednesday by the spiritual leader of Metro Detroit's 1.3 million Roman Catholics.

“In our time, Sunday has slowly lost its pride of place,” Vigneron said, echoing observations made by Catholics in southeast Michigan and beyond at a 2016 Synod, an extraordinary meeting of the faithful.

Demarcating Sunday as a holy day is part of the earliest history of the church, he said.

“In the Archdiocese of Detroit, we are committed to setting aside this day as much as possible for God-centered pursuits.”

Vigneron's pastoral note, titled “The Day of The Lord,” results from the synod, the first in the archdiocese in 47 years.

The increasing erosion of Sunday as a special day set aside for rest and worship emerged as a prime topic, archdiocesan officials said. Participants mentioned ridding the day of the diversions of sport as part of allowing for greater focus on the holiness of the day, when, Christians believe, Jesus Christ rose from death.

As hundreds of worshippers fill the pews for a monthly "Mass Mob," Archbishop Allen Vigneron presides over a 175th Eucharistic Celebration Mass.

Some parents said that not having to attend schedule sports events or run around town delivering their children to practices would free up a day. And, in this case, the day they believe is holiest.

Others expressed concern that making one day off limits for sports could make it harder to fit those activities into busy schedules.

“We heard this from people all across our parishes, Catholic schools, apostolates, ministries of the church about how Sunday had lost its unique character,” said the Rev. Stephen Pullis, director of the Department of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools for the archdiocese.

“From the beginning of the church, Sunday was the day set aside for the Lord. In those early days they said this was the day we need to set aside for rest, for not doing the normal activities, for worshiping God and for being together as family and a community.

“In the past few decades, we’ve lost that as part of the culture,” Pullis said. “But, also, we in the church have kind of lost sight of it as well.”

While hearing about the challenges for families and individuals in creating that temporal space at the Synod, Pullis said, Catholics also said the scheduling of sports could be problematic.

Some people thought creating some down time on Sundays would help families, while others said it would make it more difficult to attend sporting events because so many families have Sundays off together.

“We heard a lot of voices,” Pullis said. “It came up very clearly at the Synod that some of the ways we had athletics made it harder for families to live together.

“We know that it’s a challenge and it’ll present a shift for some people, a change in our culture in the church. And, we know that there will be bumps along the road,” he said.

“But, we have confidence both with the dialogue we’ve had with pastors and families, and also through a lot of prayer and discernment, we have confidence this is the right direction to go in.”

Patty Aguilar goes through drills with her teammates during soccer practice at Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Riverview, Wednesday.

It appears likely that the greatest impact will come at the younger ages of the CYO.

Most high school games, matches and practices are not scheduled on Sundays. Because the younger players are often participating at high school venues, when high school athletes are not, their activities have been more likely to be scheduled on Sundays.

Still, “it’s very doable,” said Vic Michaels, director of the CHSL and of the archdiocese Department of Health, Athletics, Physical Education and Safety.

“At the CYO level, it is a little more complex because of the facilities they use. They have played a lot of games on Sunday in the past.

“But, with some creative scheduling, it won’t be a problem.”

There will be no lost practice time, games or matches, Michaels said, and no shortened schedules.

“All of our schedules will remain intact,” he said. “All of our playoff and championship events that we run, nothing’s going to be taken away. It will just be a matter of a little different schedule.

“It’s just going to be little bit more planning in advance to avoid a facilities conflict.”

As for families who may miss the convenience of having the time off, together on Sundays to attend games, Michaels said he more frequently hears a different point of view: Parents and families would like to have a day off from activities, generally.

“Our parents seem to like our games better on Saturdays because it’s non-school nights, if you would,” he said.

“They’ll take that game on Saturdays or Saturday evenings and then go home and not have to go to school the next day. Most of our parents, regardless of when it’s played, they’re going to be there to support their kids.”

Jim Nelson, football program director at St. Hugo of the Hills School in Bloomfield Hills, said he understands the decision but fears it will cause some families to move their children from CYO teams to travel squads run by other organizations.

“Coaches will be faced with the challenge of keeping teams together,” he said. “Without a doubt, it will make scheduling challenges, largely because of the travel activities.

“CYO athletics across the board will suffer because kids and parents will have another reason to choose to play for non-school teams,” he said.

His suggestion at the Catholic League Athletic Directors and Coaches meeting last fall was to allow sports after 1 p.m. on Sundays.

“I believe that the archdiocese (leaders) are looking to make this decision because they see a dwindling number of parishioners at Sunday service largely because there are other events," Nelson said. "People are almost making their faith secondary.”

Holly Coppiellie, whose children grew up playing sports in the CYO, said Sunday games typically would not be scheduled until after noon Mass concluded. Getting gym and field time is already a challenge, she said.

“Take out Sunday after 12 p.m. and that may limit the number of teams that can be fielded,” Coppiellie said. “CYO is a great family program. It may be exciting to see what replaces the loss of time or maybe not.

“Most families look for groups that can combine parents, children, interests, values, CYO was that for my family and we all loved it," she said.

Steve Michell’s two children both played hockey at Walled Lake Northern High School and he said they would be at the rink for practice or tournaments on weekends, especially Sundays.

“We would all be there for a game or practice, a meal, being together as a family,” said Michell, who lives in Commerce Township. “Being together as a family is what is important in my view and the families that wanted to attend services went Saturday night if Sunday is not convenient.

“Maybe the Catholic Church will eliminate Wednesday and Saturday services so everyone goes on Sunday?”

In his note, Vigneron reflected the desire of some families to clear some time from their busy schedules on Sundays.

The synod, which he called, was the first in the archdiocese since 1969. It has formed the basis for a new, invigorated approach to the faith for “joyful missionary disciples with evangelization as our focus.”

The summer after the synod, Vigneron outlined the initiative two years ago in a pastoral letter, “Unleash the Gospel.” 

On Wednesday, he moved to the topic of the Sabbath.

“In shifting away from the hustle of required sporting activities on Sunday, we will reclaim this holy day and create more time for families to choose activities that prioritize time spent with each other and our Lord,” Vigneron wrote.

“As the Catholic Church, our primary role is to form disciples. Informed by Synod 16 and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we look forward to abundant blessings as we seek to abide by our God’s teaching to keep holy the Lord’s Day.”

Clark Doman contributed.