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Photo design by Robert Noyce, Deseret Morning News

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.

Despite sending letters to all of the NFL teams warning them not to select him, the Oakland Raiders gambled and picked him up in the sixth round. Nonetheless, Herring left the pads and the padded wallet sitting on the offer table. He became a low-paid high-school math teacher in Utah County instead.

Herring's faith-promoting story made national news. It reminded many of "Chariots of Fire," the Academy Award-winning movie based on a Christian athlete who chose not to run in the 100 and 200 meter races in the 1924 Paris Olympics, despite being a gold-medal favorite, because they were on Sunday.

Eric Liddell ended up winning the 400 meters — a victory made all the sweeter because of a note passed to him before the race. It quoted 1 Samuel 2:30: "He who honors me I will honor."

"There are many people today who think of those who honor Sunday in an old-fashioned way as kill-joys. They feel that during the years of their youth they ought to have a chance to 'have their fling.' Give me that day of rest, when all the savors of organized games can be put on one side and all life's joys will be greater because of it," Liddell said in the book "In The Lord's Day — 100 Leaders Speak Out."

He continued: "To me personally it is a time of communion and fellowship with God, a time of quiet, in fact a time of recreation by fellowship with God. I believe that Sunday as we have had it in the past is one of the greatest helps in a young man's life to keep all that is noblest, truest and best."

Similar to Liddell, Herring doesn't regret his decision to give up his lifelong dream of playing NFL football.

"It wasn't easy, but it wasn't just the money," he said. "I was walking away from something I was good at and that I enjoyed doing and that I'd made a big investment in. That's probably harder for me than actually not having money — wondering what I could've done."

What he did was continue to teach, coach high-school linemen and spend all his extra time raising five children with his wife, who supported him and played a "significant role" in his choice. To him, those blessings from the Lord are worth more than fortune or fame.

"I wouldn't change what I did," he said. "I've had opportunities to serve in my church and be with my family on the Sabbath that I would never had if I'd had a long professional football career. So I guess as the years go by I'm more grateful that I've had all that time doing those things."

And while he believes "the scriptures are clear on the importance of the Sabbath observance," Herring isn't about to cast judgment on any of his fellow famous LDS athletes (Steve Young, Chad Lewis, Shawn Bradley, Danny Ainge, Johnny Miller, etc.) who've pursued pro careers. In fact, his younger brother, Isaac, also an ex-Coug, is attempting to make the Seattle Seahawks' squad this year.

Herring talks about his decision "without any disrespect at all to those who choose to play," he said. "That's their decision, and that's just dandy."

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, told the Boston Herald he believes the Catholic Church's attendance will dip if it condemns Sunday play. He was "flabbergasted" and said the pope's speech "seems like it's coming out of left field" because teams of all levels all across the world have "been playing sports on Sunday his entire papacy."

And, he believes, it's even deeper than just having fun.

"Sports," he said, "is a religion in this country and a lot of the world."

An interesting and hard-to-argue point — and one that might evoke an entirely different sermon about remembering the First Commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." But we'll leave that topic for another day.

The Rev. E. Brian Hare-Diggs of Salt Lake's First United Methodist Church said he "could not agree more" with the pope about Sundays.

"It's a day God has set apart to worship him in spirit and truth," he said, adding that doesn't mean we are forbidden from playing sports on Sunday, only that we are simply told to glorify God. He actually believes there's too much said about what you should or shouldn't do on Sunday.

The Rev. Michael J. Imperiale of Salt Lake's First Presbyterian Church said the Lord knows what's best for man — that includes taking one day a week apart from regular work schedules. "To me, it doesn't matter what day it is," he said. Since he works hard on Sunday as a minister, he takes Monday off as his special day of rest. And he's fine if that includes recreation or sports.

"I ski on Mondays," he said.

The central concept of the Sabbath, according to Pastor Mike Gray of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, is "a day of ceasing from normal activities." It's a day to rest, to spend time with God and his people, to attend church services and participate in recreation if so desired.

"It's about balance," he said.

LDS Church leaders have often expressed concern about an erosion of worship on the Sabbath day. In a talk at the October 1997 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley said it shouldn't be regarded as one of "the lesser commandments."

"The Sabbath of the Lord is becoming the play day of the people. It is a day of golf and football on television, of buying and selling in our stores and markets. Are we moving to mainstream America as some observers believe? In this I fear we are. What a telling thing it is to see the parking lots of the markets filled on Sunday in communities that are predominantly LDS."

Former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball was quoted in the Ensign (Feb. 2000, 49) as saying Sunday was a day "to take inventory — to analyze our weaknesses, to confess our sins to our associates and our Lord" and to fast in "sackcloth and ashes." He also suggested reading good books and scriptures, pondering, resting, visiting the sick, preaching the gospel, spending time with family, courting properly, doing good, taking time to "drink at the fountain of knowledge and of instruction" and enrich "our spirit and our soul."

The Sabbath, he continued, is "a day to restore us to our spiritual stature, a day to partake of the emblems of his sacrifice and atonement, a day to contemplate the glories of the gospel and of the eternal realms, a day to climb high on the upward path toward our Heavenly Father."

Church members were admonished in the Ensign article to "engage in activities that contribute to greater spirituality" by former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson.

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He also listed some things that should be avoided. The "don'ts" include: overworking and staying up late Saturday so that you are exhausted Sunday; filling the Sabbath so full of extra meetings that there is no time for prayer, meditation, family worship and counseling; doing gardening and odd jobs around the house; taking trips to canyons or resorts; visiting friends socially, joyriding, wasting time, and engaging in other amusements; playing sports and hunting; and shopping.

"Remember," President Benson counseled, "that Sunday is the Lord's day, a day to do his work."

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