12May 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!

9 Responses

  1. Shaun

    I think the new Mass and the shallow, superficial preaching are major factors. Cardinal Ratzinger would agree, at least with the new Mass bit. I am 32, and I prefer the humble Low Mass in Latin according to the old rite. It’s a humble, quiet, spiritual experience. It meets you where you’re at, that’s what I find. The new Mass, on the other hand, forces the same kind of superficial, shallow ‘participation’ every time. You can be who you are at the old Mass, and that is one reason I prefer it. I don’t have to act a part or parrot responses.

  2. John

    Sport has been around for a long time, even when the church was strong in Ireland. I have had a theory (untested of course) that the real creator of community in Ireland for a long time was the GAA. The GAA members also of course went to Mass and so on, but the church not was a creator of community in the same sense. And church leaders were not aware of this phenomenon, that the church was lacking in community, so all this rather crept up on them, that they had communion having dispensed with community. Did you ever see or hear of anyone seriously discussing the sermon after Mass? People prayed in solitude (in the congregation) and they did not sing with the choir. And of course someone else was “Boss”, the parish priest. The people in the pews had no real standing. Someone should do a sociological study on this. I can still see the same phenomenon in my local church, people hunched up in their pews, largely out of contact with their neighbours.
    People are looking for community and for something they can do and be engaged with. The Roman ritual doesn’t do this for many, but it’s prized by the church. The Bible says that Jesus came to bring life, but what’s offered looks like dreariness. The early church believed in and prayed for and saw miracles of faith and healing. I guess people found that exciting. That requires leaders who believe in miracles. Sport develops mind and body, but ritual and dreary sermons and music develop nothing. Parents want their young people to develop, but what does the church do to develop them? Sport certainly offers great leaders and it offers a role for young people. Isn’t Brian Cody one such leader?

  3. Sean O'Conaill

    This is very entertaining, but there is a grotesque missing of the potential of the Homily to compete with the GAA and Sky Sports.
    .
    And that’s because – as an almost universal rule – our clergy never get really waxed anymore, or even verbally entertaining. And that in turn is because they don’t understand the potential of Original Sin to explain all competition, even the violent kind that fills the six o’clock spot and PrimeTime.
    .
    Our primordial problem, totally unseen by the ‘conscious evolutionists’, is that we are all deeply uncertain about our own value. That leads to the ‘forever mistake’ – the tendency to believe that our value must be decided by some kind of contest. That explains every disaster in history – from Abel’s misfortune with Cain to Liverpool’s defeat in the Premiership.
    .
    It also explains social inequality, the Crash and the current plight of the ACP. The last was well defined a few weeks ago by Joseph O’Leary, when he told us that most Catholic clergy have a ‘phobia’ about theology. I waited in vain for a tsunami of protest here from the ACP’s paid up membership: there wasn’t a single whimper.
    .
    That told me something. Our clergy think they have been sent permanently to a historical sin bin, and have no longer any game-changing tactic to offer the global game. They are totally wrong. They just need to stop thinking that Original Sin has primarily to do with sexuality, and realise it has to do instead with our original and never-ending dissatisfaction with our current supposed status as losers.
    .
    To wake up to this is to wake up to the meaning of the ‘kingdom of God’ also – the realisation that in strict reality, everyone’s equal and infinite value is a ‘given’ – that all competition is, strictly, ludicrous. But that’s another day’s work.
    .
    Try it out, Brendan – have a real eye-glaring go next weekend at the sports fanatics. Better still, wear sack cloth and ashes and announce your intention of starting a campaign to ban all GAA fixtures during Lent. Someone has to pioneer this, so why not yourself?

  4. Nuala O'Driscoll

    This is a sad article. It is the Church shaking its head sadly looking in at the world from the outside.When it should be in the center. The article epitomizes what is actually the reality of the Church’s situation. The Church is rapidly losing its relevance for its members especially the young. What fourteen year-old boy or girl would prefer to kiss a crucified man on a cross to playing a round of football in a field? One of my own kids said he gets more spirituality out on his surf-board on the waves than he does in a gloomy church. And he came up through the ranks, receiving the sacraments, serving, singing and reading at Mass, as did his six siblings. Maybe the Church should roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty, mix with the unclean the way the Nazarene did. Sport is not the only thing that has captured the energy and imagination of the the young. Science, technology, communications and interactions with others on a worldwide scale, all of this is racing ahead of religion. The Church is losing relevance because it is not keeping up. John Paul 11 once said to a gathering of scientists, ‘if the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections on creation?’ Stephen Hawking said that philosophy is dead because it has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. This also applies to religion. The Catholic Church does not need to protect God, God can protect God’s self. The Catholic Church needs to imitate the man on whose message it is founded.

  5. Sean O'Conaill

    Why no tolerance of white space between paragraphs – making everything a long dog’s dinner?

  6. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Is that meant for me Sean @5? I always put paragraphs in my comments but they never appear on this web page.

  7. Anne

    My late husband was widely known as a complete GAA fanatic all his life while at the same time attended daily Mass. It is not so much that sport has replaced religion , but more that they became disconnected from each other.I observed over the years that gradually training sessions and matches were arranged at Mass Times on Sundays ,this would have been unthinkable some years ago . On the other hand when my husband died suddenly (at a match) the Local GAA went to the ends of the earth to help us with the funeral and that sense of community came to the fore ,it emerges especially at times of tragedy. There is plenty of time to follow ones favourite sport and practice ones religion if you really want to.

  8. Rosaline

    I would like to juxtapose two sentences from the above thread. In the main article we read the following in relation to sport: “…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…”

    John at (2) in relation to his experience at church, says, “I can still see the same phenomenon in my local church, people hunched up in their pews, largely out of contact with their neighbours.”

    It is really sad that one of the loneliest places could be in church during the celebration of the Eucharist–a profound contradiction indeed! The baffling question is why the person on the other side of the altar cannot sense this —many people involved in private devotions, like saying the rosary, lighting candles at various statues etc. during the Liturgy. The very physical expression of being “hunched up in their pews” or hanging off the ends of seats at the rear of the church is calling for some gentle, sensitive invitations to come closer and gather around nearer the altar. And at a far more basic level it provides a wonderful, teachable moment to begin to explore the real meaning of Eucharist with those pesent.

  9. Paddy Ferry

    As chance would have it, I was having similar thoughts to Brendan last Sunday morning. My son, Patrick and I were on our way to see Celtic complete their Scottish Premier League Championship campaign against Dundee Utd , which they won 3-1, having actually won the league back in March. No last day drama for us !! However, this was to be the day they would finally be presented with the League Trophy and, so, there was a wonderful atmosphere as Patrick and I walked along London Road to Celtic Park.

    It was an early kick-off, 12.15pm, probably to satisfy Sky. So, we arrived in Glasgow about the time when people would normally be at Mass. For the first time I was struck by the number of young families making their way to the match. Families with children as young as 4 or 5 and all decked out in their lovely green and white hooped tops and with Celtic scarves and flags as well. It dawned on me what a commitment and effort these parents had made — and cost too — to let their children enjoy this wonderful occasion. And, my next thought was, would they make the same effort to enable their children to grow up in the faith. The answer would almost certainly be no, even though most of these families would, almost certainly be Catholic. I know there are plans to “rationalise” parishes in the Glasgow Archdiocese because of falling numbers of practising Catholics.

    I am digressing now but did you know that Celtic is only club in Britain to fly our Tricolour. Celtic was founded in 1887 — played it’s first game in 1888– by the Marist Brother Walfrid, John Kerins from Ballymote in Co. Sligo. His initiative was to raise funds for SVdP who were struggling to help feed the poor in the East End of Glasgow. Brother Walfrid was inspired by Canon Edward Hannon who had founded Hibernian in St Patrick’s Parish in the Cowgate in Edinburgh in 1875.

    The Irish connection with Celtic continues to be very strong, There were at least 2 bus loads over in Glasgow from Donegal last Sunday and there were fans from Dublin and Cork and, I am sure, from other parts Ireland too. Brendan, I hope you give us a mention next time.