I write to you in the midst of a semi-“religious” event: the Super Bowl. People have donned their sacred attire and are shouting praises. I enjoy football, but see it a lot less than most since I’m a priest and tend to be busy on Sundays! Yet I remain quite fascinated at how passionate and dedicated many Americans are to their team and to the game.
Would that more Catholics had the same dedication to the Mass and the Church that true football fans have to the game. (Fan is short for fanatic.) Would, too, that all priests and religious had the same sacrificial dedication that football players have.
Consider for a moment the players. They spend years coming up through a system of high school, college, and professional levels. Priest and religious do as well. Football players give their all to the game; their whole life is centered on it. Exhausting, year-round practice, weightlifting, and punishing games. They risk injury and suffer many pains, all for the game. Do priests and religious show the same dedication? Are they willing to make the same kind of sacrifices for Jesus? Will they risk injury and attack? I pray we will and do, but I wonder. True, we are not paid millions, but we don’t do it for the money. Are we as dedicated and sacrificial?
And what of the faithful? So many Catholics are dedicated to the game of football. They even come to Church wearing the jersey of their team, often sporting someone else’s name on their back! Let’s compare and contrast some of the aspects of football and see if the same thrill and dedication are exhibited for our Lord, the Mass, and the Church.
Disclaimer – I write a lot of this “tongue in cheek.” I am not brooding over this, just observing. I am also using a technique known as hyperbole. Hyperbole uses exaggeration to make a point. For example the phrase, “There must have been a million people there” is an exaggeration that is not literally true but does convey the idea that a lot of people were present. Please take these comparisons in the light-hearted manner in which they are intended.
That said, the point remains a serious one: we often exhibit unusual priorities when it comes to worldly vs. spiritual matters. We do well to look at ourselves with humor in order to ask God for greater passion for what matters most. Football is about a bag full of air going up and down a field. Faith is about our eternal destiny.
Consider the following Super Bowl behaviors and contrast them to Mass and the faith:
- Super Bowl – Many fans prepare for the game for weeks. They follow the playoffs, review stats, and listen to commentaries and predictions. They make sure they are “up on” the game.” At a bare minimum, they know who is playing, and usually a great deal more. They often plan parties and invite others to join them. They discuss with fellow fans their wishes and the likely outcome of the game. They often boast of their team and loudly proclaim their intent to watch the game and see their team emerge victorious! They anticipate the game and look forward to it joyfully.
- Mass – Little preparation is evident on the part of most who go to Mass. Generally, they do not review the readings or spiritually prepare by frequent confession. Fasting has disappeared from the Catholic landscape. In fact, ¾ of Catholics don’t go to Mass at all. And even of those who do, many don’t anticipate it joyfully. Many even dread going; they try to “fit it in” at the most convenient time and hope for the shortest possible Mass. This is true even on the great feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Holy Week. Most Catholics do not talk to others about going to Mass or invite them to join them.
- Super Bowl – Many fans wear special clothes for the occasion, even at regular-season football games. They wear jerseys, hats with insignias, and other “sacred” apparel. Some even paint their faces and bodies.
- Mass – Sacred apparel for Mass is all but gone. There isn’t much special attire and little care is given to display one’s faith through clothing or other marks of faith. Sunday clothes were once special. Women wore hats and veils; men wore suits and ties and would never dream of wearing a hat into Church. But all that is gone. “Come as you are” seems to be the only rule.
- Super Bowl – People who go to football games often spend hundreds of dollars for tickets. Those who are fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl spend thousands, gladly. Those who stay home often spend a lot of time and money on parties.
- Mass – Most Catholics give on average 5-7 dollars per week in the collection plate. Many are resentful when the priest speaks of money.
- Super Bowl – Most fans arrive early for the game, and do so eagerly. At regular-season games, many have tailgate parties. Fans at home joyfully anticipate the kick off and spend time in preparatory rites such as parties and beer. Even ordinary games find the fans watching pre-game shows and gathering well before the kickoff.
- Mass – Many Catholics time their arrival for just before the Mass begins. Many—as high as 50%—arrive late. Arriving early to pray or to greet fellow worshippers is generally not something that is planned for.
- Super Bowl – People LOVE the game. They are enthusiastic; they shout, cheer, and are focused and interested in each play. They are passionate, alive, and celebratory. They also care a great deal, exhibiting joy at good plays, and sorrow at bad ones. They are alive, exhilarated, and expressive. They care passionately about what is happening on the field.
- Mass – Many look bored at Mass. In many ways, the expressions on people’s faces remind one more of a funeral than of a resurrected Lord. Rather than a sea of joyful faces, it looks like everyone just sucked a lemon: bored believers, distracted disciples, frozen chosen. One finds exceptions in many Black parishes, at charismatic Masses, and in some Latino parishes. But overall, little joy or even interest is evident. It is true that many would not think of loud cheers as appropriate in Church, but even a little joy and interest would be a vast improvement.
- Super Bowl – Many fans sing team songs. Here in Washington we sing, “Hail to the Redskins, Hail victory! Braves on the warpath! Fight for ol’ D.C.!”
- Mass – Most Catholics don’t sing.
- Super Bowl – Even a normal football game lasts four hours including the pre- and post-game shows. Toward the end of each half, the game is often intentionally slowed down; incomplete passes stop the clock, etc. Fans gladly accept this slowdown and are even happy and excited if the game goes into overtime.
- Mass – Frustration and even anger are evident in many of the faithful if Mass begins to extend beyond 45 minutes. Some people even begin to walk out. Many leave right after Communion even if the Mass is “on time.”
- Super Bowl – Fans understand and accept the place of rules and expect them to be followed. Often they are angry when they are broken or when penalties are not called. They respect the role of the referee and the line judges and, even if they are unhappy, accept the finality of their judgments. They seem to understand that a recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the game.
- Mass – Some Catholics resent rules and routinely break them or support those who do. They also resent Church authorities who might “throw a flag” or assess a penalty of any sort. Often they do not respect bishops or the authority of the Church. Many refuse to accept that recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the Church. Many Catholics resent pointed sermons at Mass in which the priest speaks clearly on moral topics. Praise God, many Catholics are faithful and respect Church authority. Sadly, though, others do not.
- Super Bowl – Many who go to a football game endure rather uncomfortable conditions for the privilege: hard seats, freezing cold, pouring rain. Often the game is hard to see and the sound system is full of echoes. Still the stadium is full and few fans complain.
- Mass – Many complain readily at any inconvenience or discomfort. It’s too hot; it’s too cold; the Mass times aren’t perfectly to my liking. Why aren’t the pews cushioned? (They’re harder to keep clean, that’s why.) Why wasn’t the walk to my usual door shoveled clear of snow? When will the sound system be better? Why do they ask me to move to the front in an empty Church?
OK, that’s enough. Remember, I use hyperbole here and intend this in a lighthearted manner. We humans are funny, and what we get excited about is often humorous. The truth is, people love their football. But this one point is serious: would that we who believe were as passionate as football fans. We need to work at this on two levels.
Clergy and Church leaders need to work very hard to ensure that the liturgy of the Church is all that it should be. High-quality, sacred music, good preaching, and devout and pious celebration are essential. Perfunctory, hurried liturgy with little attention to detail does not inspire.
The faithful, too, must realize more essentially what the Mass really is and then ask God to anoint them with a powerful and pious awareness of the presence and ministry of Jesus Christ. They must ask for a joy and zeal that will be manifest on their faces, in their deeds, and in their dedication.
Enjoy this video by Fr. Robert Barron, who also uses a sports analogy.