During the first week of the football season, my five-year-old son Samuel and I camped in the basement on the first weekend of the season as we stayed up to watch Notre Dame's opening game. As we said our prayers in our sleeping bags following Notre Dame's defeat of Georgia Tech that night, Samuel quoted one of his favorite lines from the football movie Rudy: "Notre Dame our Mother, pray for us!"
My pious son was praying for victory. He was not, however, thinking of a great battle like Lepanto or even of victory over sin and the triumph of Our Lady's Immaculate Heart. Rather, the object of his prayer was next week's home opener versus Penn State. (His prayer apparently was efficacious as the Irish crushed the Nittany Lions 41-17.)
Football is a terrific sport, but we can take this form of entertainment too seriously. Sometimes our allegiances go so far as to border on the sacrilegious. For example, when I first moved to this area, I heard of a priest who would wear black and gold vestments in the fall. These, of course, are not liturgical colors, but rather the colors of his beloved Steelers. On another occasion, I've heard of a parish that would give updates on football games during Mass, as though our salvation depends on that. Other parishes have altered their Sunday Mass schedules so they wouldn't conflict with the schedule of the local NFL team.
Those examples may be extreme, but they point to a reality faced by pastors around the country, as football and the Christian faith vie for our attention. It's not uncommon for a Catholic to complain about the homily going five minutes too long (apparently the pastor was out of time-outs), only to watch seven hours or more of football later that same day. Many football fans will spend more time watching commercials on a given weekend then they will spend in church. The liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas compete with football every year, and on the local level the parish each weekend in a real way has to compete with a full complement of professional football games.
There are countless parallels that can be drawn by which we can assess where our own treasure lies. For instance, in preparing for Sunday, do we spend more time reading the sports page and listening to sports radio or reading the Gospel and other spiritual fare? Do we consider our community the local sports bar or the local parish? During the season, are we more likely to travel for a road game or go on a pilgrimage? Do we more frequently think of the Saints as our intercessors in heaven or as the NFL team that drafted Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush? Do we tend to spend Advent preparing for Christmas or for the playoffs? Do we think of January 1st as a holy day or as a college football marathon? During the week, are we more likely to hum a hymn from last Sunday's Mass, or our team's fight song?
The list goes on, and we armchair quarterbacks do well to re-evaluate our priorities in light of what's truly most important in life.
Home or Visitor?
Our Lord said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt 6:21). For most of us, our hearts are never too far away from our family.
After all, as the saying goes, "Home is where the heart is." We might go out to make our way in the world, perhaps even to travel abroad, but at some point we long to go home and be with our loved ones.
If that's true on the natural level, it's even truer on the supernatural level. The Church is the Family of God spread through space and time, uniting us to one another in Christ through familial bonds that transcend flesh and blood. But are we aware of — and more importantly, living — this reality?
While our membership in the Church as God's children is primarily a spiritual reality, it is nonetheless meant to be experienced to some degree in this life. As Pope John Paul II wrote, the parish in some sense is "the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters." It's where we are called to live out the vocation of the first Christians, who "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
The Church does acknowledge that there are many other places and forms of association through which the Church can be present and at work. Even so, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the Church considers the parish to be in a special way our "fraternal and welcoming family home." Why? Because it is a Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Catholics in a particular locality (cf. Catechism, no. 2226). Our Lord's Eucharistic presence animates the life of the parish, as it strengthens us in holiness and builds authentic community — not only within the parish, but with the diocese and even the universal Church. In short, the parish is where we are to draw "living water" (Jn 4:14) to irrigate and fructify our daily lives.
While I know what the Church has to say about the parish in theory, I don't always put it into practice. I have to admit I've hurried home from Mass so as not to miss any of the "big game." What did that say about the importance I was placing on the Lord's Day?
Even those of us who aren't football fans may occasionally find ourselves at Mass thinking about the activities planned for later in the day, rather than what's taking place on the altar. If we were watching a football game or engaging in one of our favorite pursuits, would we let our minds wander so much?
When the Second Vatican Council emphasized the need for "full, active, and conscious" participation in the liturgy, the goal was not the proliferation of speaking parts and sundry liturgical ministries so much as to beckon us to enter more deeply into the realities celebrated in the liturgy, to be aware of who we are and what we're doing at Mass.
This "full, active, and conscious" participation makes all the difference.
Nature abhors a vacuum. If we don't engage ourselves in heavenly things, we will put disordered energy into worldly pursuits. God desires more for us than that.
Let's refocus on what we as lay Catholics can do to "live the liturgy" so that every aspect of our lives may bear witness to the love of God poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.