hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 16, 2013

What will it be -- sports or church?

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — It wasn’t so much his son’s wrestling prowess that overwhelmed the father. Winning more than 50 matches in one high school season is commendable for any athlete.

Nor was it the many football accolades his son received as a star lineman and the scholarship offers that have come his way.

All well and good for any family of a gifted athlete.

The proudest moment, however, had nothing to do with sports and the many newspaper articles that proclaimed his success. None of it could have replaced that moment in church when father and son stood in a pew and recited The Lord’s Prayer together.

“All those years in Sunday School seem to have paid off,” the father rejoiced. “We stood together and prayed. It brought a tear to my eye.”

At a time when church schools are being decimated by sports activities and other “outside” commitments, here’s a family that appears to have struck a happy medium.

“Equal time,” I told my children.

There’s enough pressure on these kids for Sunday games without adding more fuel to the fire. I realize they have commitments. But let’s not forget our spiritual obligations.

I remember my own boys when they were going through the youth hockey ranks. It got to be a weekly debate inside our family. What would it be this Sunday? Church or sports?

If they had their way, they would have never seen the inside of a sanctuary. And neither would I, since I was the self-imposed chauffeur. Hitting the road for a 6 a.m. face-off an hour away was not my idea of how to begin a Sunday morning.

In some ways, it worked better than a 9 or 10 a.m. start, which allowed no time to hustle out the rink and bolt to church. Both my boys were acolytes and required to assist a priest on the altar. Either be there for the start or cause an embarrassment by being late.

One league had the audacity to inadvertently schedule a game on Easter Sunday, which caused all sorts of family rebellion at the dinner table. It meant my whole family cutting the holiday short and driving to an arena on the holiest of days.

One Sunday, the archbishop was paying our community a visit and one of my hockey-playing sons was scheduled for altar duty. It was an honor for any child to uphold inside a Christian ethnic family.

But there were serious problems, as I recall. It was also the day of a hockey playoff game and my son’s services were needed on defense. As captain of the group, he had a responsibility to his team.

To be honest about it, the dilemma bothered me more than it did him. Peer pressure for kids is one thing. Adult anxiety is something else. What would my priest say, let alone my fellow congregants?

“What, you took your son to a hockey game during a liturgical manifestation? Where are your priorities, man?”

Well, that’s exactly how I left it, in my son’s hands. “The choice is yours, not mine,” I mandated. “You’re the one who has to live with it.”

I felt a bit awkward talking to a 12-year-old this way, but life is full of decisions, whether we’re a child or an adult. We live by them and sometimes become demoralized by them.

The day of destiny arrived and my son was in the kitchen waiting with no gym bag by his feet. He had donned a necktie and had his missal with him.

“We better hurry so we’ll be on time — for church,” he said.

“What about the game?”

“Oh, there will be others,” he said. “How many kids get to serve Mass for an archbishop? I already told my coach and he understood. He respected my decision.”

My son said nothing about letting his teammates down that day or competing for a championship. As it turned out, the kid who replaced him in the lineup had an outstanding game and personally telephoned him that night to thank him — for staying away.

As a Sunday School teacher for 30 years, I have lived through one crisis after another. My biggest nemesis has not been apathy, but scheduling conflicts with sports and other elements.

As I recall, a high school student was forced to choose between band practice on Sunday mornings or religious education at church. The director was an intolerant numskull who was more a drill sergeant than someone teaching music to teenagers. Either report to practice or you’re off the team.

Through a public outcry and enough parents objecting to his obnoxious ways, the director was forced to change the time to accommodate his members. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.