New policy makes evangelization, discipleship 'highest priority' in Catholic athletic programs in Metro Detroit

DETROIT — As part of a new pastoral note encouraging Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit to keep Sunday as a day of holiness, rest and family togetherness, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron introduced a new policy requiring Catholic parishes and schools to stop scheduling athletic games and practices on the Lord’s day.

“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,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote in “The Day of the Lord,” released May 15 as the fourth in a series of teaching notes supporting the themes of his 2017 pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel.

“As the Catholic Church, our primary role is to form disciples,” the archbishop wrote. “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.”

The no-sports-on-Sundays policy, which goes into effect Aug. 1, is a direct result of the synod and one of Unleash the Gospel’s action steps (3.3C), but it’s not meant to lessen the archdiocese’s commitment to youth athletics, said Fr. Stephen Pullis, director of the archdiocese’s Department of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools.

A Bishop Foley High School athlete wears a jersey with the words “All for Him” sewn on the back during a rosary rally at Ford Field. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

“At the synod, the question came up about how we can best live our life as a Church together, to bear witness to the world about what we believe,” Fr. Pullis told Detroit Catholic. “What came through very clearly was that athletics are a wonderful part of the life of our local Church, but they’ve also in some ways taken a disproportionate amount of time and attention for families. They’ve become a challenge for families on how to properly integrate them.

See also: Archbishop calls for Church in Detroit to 'reclaim Sundays' as a day of rest set apart for God

“We heard from a number of parents and priests that sports had taken over Sunday,” Fr. Pullis continued. “So this was a little bit of a course correction to say, ‘We love athletics, but we need to take a stand here’ because sports so easily take more and more time, and can at times fragment a family. We really needed to say that Sunday is about being for and with the Lord, for and with the family, and for and with those in need.”

How to implement the new directive was the purview of a task force that included a Catholic school principal, pastor, athletic director, coach, CYO and CHSL representatives, and parents of children both involved and not involved in athletic programs, Fr. Pullis said. In February, the proposal was approved by the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council, a body of priests who advise Archbishop Vigneron, and a draft was sent to all priests of the archdiocese for their input.

Catholic League, CYO adapt to new policy

More than 65 percent of the 9,376 students enrolled in Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit participate in some form of school-sponsored athletics, said Vic Michaels, director of the Catholic High School League and the archdiocese’s Department of Health, Athletics, Physical Education and Safety.

Although the CHSL rarely schedules games on Sundays — only boys and girls basketball championships have traditionally been held on Sundays, Michaels said — they are sometimes used as makeup days for rained-out games or scheduling conflicts.

“While not a major change for many of our schools, this policy will help reduce the distractions for families in their pursuit of reclaiming Sunday as the Lords Day,” Michaels said. “In shifting our sports to Monday through Saturday, we aim to help our dedicated student athletes continue following their passions without sacrificing Sunday worship, rest and family time.”

St. Catherine of Siena basketball players clap and cheer on their teammates during a championship game in March at the University of Detroit Mercy's Calihan Hall. (Tim Fuller | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“Saturday is actually a better day for athletics,” Michaels told Detroit Catholic. “There’s no school the next day. There are a number of reasons why Saturday is better than Sunday from a high school athlete’s point of view.”

This year, the basketball championships were moved to Saturday with minimal issues, Michaels said.

“It definitely impacts (the Catholic Youth Organization) more, and it’s a facilities issue more than anything,” Michaels added. “Over the years, the CYO has doubled, sometimes tripled the number of teams each school has. For example, where schools used to have four teams playing in the parish, a couple for boys and a couple for girls, they now have eight. They’ll be affected by this, but it’s nothing we can’t work around.”

Chris Werner, director for the Catholic Youth Organization in the Archdiocese of Detroit, said parishes and schools will have to get creative in rescheduling games, given the vast number of kids who participate in CYO athletics.

“In the 2017-18 season, we had 74 parishes or schools participate in CYO athletics with just under 1,200 teams,” Werner said. “If you look at the athletes and athletic directors and coaches, parents and siblings, we’re talking 50,000 Catholic souls who are part of CYO sports. We’re one of the largest CYO programs in the country.”

Approximately 7,000 athletes in grades five through eight participate in CYO sports each year, coming from parishes and schools across the Archdiocese of Detroit, as well as parts of Washtenaw County. Many of these athletes play more than one sport per year. 

Werner said the CYO is committed to working with programs to find alternative venues and work through scheduling conflicts, adding families are the reason CYO exists.

“We believe in families,” Werner said. “We’re a big proponent of families, and what we encourage a lot of our parishes to do is to incorporate family and faith into their sporting events.”

A cheerleader performs a routine during the annual Prep Bowl festivities at Ford Field. (Gregg McIntosh | Special to Detroit Catholic)

With athletic directors given advance notice of the coming change, the CYO has already taken some measures to lessen the impact, such as using some weekday practices for games instead, Werner added.

“We’ve extended the season, and we’re looking for other fields to move teams around,” Werner said. “In baseball, for instance, you can play a doubleheader. We’ll have to change a lot of the formats for what we do, and we’re committed to doing that.”

Archdiocese making faith 'highest priority' in sports

With the move toward making Sundays more of a day for families, faith and works of charity, Fr. Pullis said the Archdiocese of Detroit joins other faith communities in recognizing the need to honor the Lord’s day.

“The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has the same policy, as well as other dioceses,” Fr. Pullis said. “We know that our Jewish brothers and sisters who are part of our Catholic League (Frankel Jewish Academy) cannot participate in sports on their Sabbath, on Saturday. We’re happy to accommodate them, so they don’t have to choose between living their life and being faithful to God and participating in the wonderful aspects of athletics.”

Fr. Pullis pointed to the Archdiocese of Detroit’s involvement with programs such as Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” program and SportsLeader as ways the local Church seeks to integrate faith and discipleship with athletics, which he said is the primary purpose of Catholic sports programs in the first place.

Parents, teachers and religious sisters cheer on student-athletes during a contest earlier this year. (Tim Fuller | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“This policy calls for athletics to make evangelization and discipleship their highest priority,” Fr. Pullis said. “We have been working both in CYO and the Catholic High School League to achieve that goal.”

To that end, the archdiocese isn’t just calling for an end to sports on Sundays, but for a reappropriation of Sundays as a day set apart for prayer, family meals, faith sharing and acts of mercy, Fr. Pullis said — in other words, a day set apart for the Lord.

“We’re looking forward to the Parish Day of Renewal in November, where we’ll be presenting a number of different resources to help families reclaim Sundays so Sundays can really be the Lord’s day lived out in the domestic church,” Fr. Pullis said. “Now that we don’t have sports, we want to make Sundays not just a day for staring at our phones, but a day for families to live and be together.”


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