Why Croke Park and Old Trafford are the new cathedrals
By the time you read this Man City will have won the Premiership. Manuel Pellegrini will probably be celebrating with a long-delayed hair-cut. And Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, will have to take comfort from the new four-year extension to his contract at just £2.5 million a year.
Now, if you don’t know who Man(chester) City are or what the Premiership is (or wish you didn’t) you’ll probably agree with what follows.
From August to May every year millions of people all over the world tune into Sky Sports (or the equivalent) to get their fix of Premiership soccer. And when the last day of the season arrives, they collapse into the equivalent of ‘cold turkey’. They don’t know what to do with themselves.
In Ireland, those who follow Gaelic football, have the best of both worlds. Because just as the Premiership ends, the GAA championship season begins, with the Premiership and the All Ireland series neatly folding into each other. The best of all possible worlds. For some.
Sport is everywhere, the great obsession of our times. It’s more important than religion now because it has successfully pushed religion to the sidelines. A priest-colleague gave me a graphic description of gathering with a small remnant of his parishioners at 3 o’clock on Good Friday to commemorate the crucifixion on Calvary and as they kissed the cross in silence cheers could be heard from the adjoining football field as infatuated parents urged on their under-14 daughters in a crucial inter-parish match.
Sport of course has not just relegated religion to a lower division, it has successfully adopted its rubrics and rituals. The Catholic Church, for so long the determinant of choice in people’s lives, can’t compete because sport is not just perceived as more exciting / interesting / important, it has also stolen our clothes. The new Man(chester) United jersey has become the vestment of choice. You’ll Never Walk Alone, the anthem of Liverpool FC, is a tried and tested hymn. The referee is the new celebrant, orchestrating the ritual. The new pilgrimage destination is not Lourdes or Mejagorge but Old Trafford or Croke Park.
Where once life seemed saturated in religion, now sport is everywhere, taking precedence over everything. At a wedding reception guests watching a rugby match refused to move into the dining-room despite efforts to shift them. (Eventually the hotel in desperation turned off the televisions.) A suggested First Communion date got the red card because it clashed with the first round of the (Mayo) championship. Just a week or so ago the main host of a family celebration deserted the table to sit in his car listing to the radio commentary of the New York versus Mayo match.
I once served in a very organised parish where dates for meetings etc had to be agreed months in advance and the only bible consulted was the Manchester United schedule of matches. And at the ordination of a bishop, some years ago, the priest acting as Master of Ceremonies, drifted periodically into the sacristy to check on the score in the Mayo versus Sligo first-round match of the championship.
What’s different about sport now is not just its ever-increasing popularity, fuelled by television coverage and the commercial world, but the presumption that it takes precedence over everything else, family, community, religion. An unexpected draw and family and community schedules have to be immediately redrawn, regardless. Wedding jubilees, anniversary Masses, even sometimes funerals have to be re-organised around the much more important world of sport.
Part of the reason for the popularity of sport is the decline of religion, including the break-up of the traditional parish. Parish boundaries are now moveable feasts, a prospect fuelled by the motor car and the decreasing number of (ageing) clergy, effectively managing a Priest-Doc service.
Part of the popularity of sport too is the search for a new, more acceptable identity as society fractures and interest-groups replace the experience of community. The golf club becomes a more important space than the local hall.
All of this seems to be part of the search for belonging, for cohesion, for personal and communal identity, for finding a place where the great hungers of life can be satisfied, if only as some surrogate level.
Part of it too is the almost religious fervour with which grown men and women live out some kind of fantasy through the medium of sport. With a deadly seriousness they discuss Manchester United, Munster rugby or Mayo football as if they were debating a complex theological problem, assessing motivation, pondering possibilities, explaining how a manager got it right (or wrong, depending on the result) and imagining that, all things being equal, they could do as good a job as James Horan or that Dutchman who’s waiting in the wings to replace David Moyes in Old Trafford.
You know religion has been pushed into the half-penny place when sensible, self-effacing, God-fearing men who couldn’t bring themselves to move out of the back seat of a church at Mass buy Mayo jerseys and silly hats and paint their faces as they take on yet again the great pilgrimage path to Croke Park.
Humankind has a long history of searching for the right things in the wrong places and I suspect that this modern obsession with sport may well fit into that category. Not indeed that such interest should be patronised or dismissed because truth to tell it keeps a lot of us a lot of the time off the streets.
But when a hobby becomes an unquestioned obsession and we become fixated on it to such an extent that life has to be lived in its all-pervading shadow, then maybe we need to take a quiet look at ourselves.
Now, seriously, do you think Mayo will make another appearance in Croke Park on the third Sunday of September? Answers on a postcard but not to me, please!