Sports vs. the Sabbath

Published: Saturday, May 1 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

When Pope John Paul II recently implored for more praying than playing and for more enlightenment than entertainment on Sundays, some people responded as if he were a referee making a bad call against their favorite team.

"The pope strikes out," read a headline. A skeptic said he was "coming out of left field." One writer sarcastically asked for the Vatican's phone number so he could find out if it was OK if he watched the news or "SportsCenter."

But others, like a Boston Herald columnist, said the pope "hit a home run" by admonishing the world to shun the secular for the spiritual on the Sabbath day. Even Wasatch Front church leaders of other faiths agreed with his overall message.

If nothing else, the pontiff's plea reinvigorated the age-old debate of how exactly those who believe in God are supposed to obey his Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." (Exodus 20:8)

Considering 85 percent of Americans said religion is either "very" or "fairly important" to them yet only 43 percent admitted attending weekly services in a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, it's a message the pope, the prophet and pastors believe the masses need.

Does that mean sporting teams from the peewees to the pros who play on Sundays — and those who watch them or go golfing, camping or to the movies — are turning it into Sin-day? Or can you have your game and play it, too, so long as you attend church?

Although he condemned the "culture of the here and now" and expressed concern about its effect on family life, the pope didn't come out and define a list of do's and don'ts. He focused on the spirit of the law, not the letter. But he did make one thing clear when speaking to Australian bishops in March: The Sabbath Day should be more spiritual than sporty, with less world and more worship.

"When Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes subordinate to a secular concept of 'weekend' dominated by such things as entertainment and sport, people stay locked within a horizon so narrow that they can no longer see the heavens," he said.

"Sunday is the supreme day of faith, an indispensable day, the day of Christian hope. Any weakening in the Sunday observance of Holy Mass weakens Christian discipleship."

That doesn't mean Catholic-owned Notre Dame will join BYU in banning sports on Sunday or that priests will punish those who go out on the day of rest.

"We're not condemning things," said Bishop George Niederauer of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Rather, he added, people would be wise to find a better balance between the spiritual and the secular.

Echoing the pope, Bishop Niederauer urges people to think of Sunday not just as "the Lord's Day" but as "the lord of days." He says there's room for recreation, but he worries that Sunday worship has become a counterculture practice.

"We have to be careful," he said.

The pope warned church leaders to "lead men and women from the shadows of moral confusion and ambiguous thinking."

Former BYU football player Eli Herring, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agrees wholeheartedly with the pope's Sunday sermon. He was so devout in his religious beliefs it cost him millions of dollars.

Coming out of BYU, the talented offensive lineman from Springville was a projected first-round draft pick in 1995. But the 6-foot-8, 330-pound tackle spurned a pro career and the hefty, annual six- or seven-figure check due to the conflict with his convictions. Simply, the NFL played on Sundays; he wouldn't.

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