A league of their own

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When a group of young adults recently took to the sand for a volleyball match, they were not playing for money or fame.

They were hardly playing to win — except for the guys, of course. Instead, the match was the excuse for young Catholics to get together and enjoy a faith community that many have not yet found in parish life.

It might seem an odd pairing — faith and athletics.

But organizer Chris Funke maintains it’s a natural.

“About a year ago, a group of us went to the archdiocese and asked what we could do to strengthen young adult ministry in the archdiocese,” said Funke, a 29-year-old member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa who has been involved with St. Sebastian Sports from the beginning.

“We were asked to think of a direct way to get young adults involved, and decided we could use sports as a tool to bring people together and use that experience to evangelize and re-energize young adults with faith.”

So far, the plan seems to be working.

Close to 200 young adults have participated in St. Sebastian Sports — named after the patron saint of athletes — since its inception last March.

St. Sebastian Sports organizes teams of interested players, then signs them up with existing leagues in the Kansas City area.

Sports offered so far have included softball, volleyball, and indoor soccer. Numbers were so large for coed softball last summer that St. Sebastian Sports ran its own private league at the MidAmerica Sports Complex in Shawnee.

“Our ultimate goal is to grow this ministry to where we can have private leagues for each sport taking place through an already established organization,” said Funke.

Tentative plans are in place to include club Frisbee golf, a bowling league, and possibly a golf league. But Funke said other sports offerings were still being considered.

“We’re really trying to keep our ears peeled to what our members want from us,” he said. “We want to go with the sports that will be popular and draw interest. It’s really up in the air right now.”

St. Sebastian Sports’ primary focus is on young adults, drawing from the Catholic population ranging in age from 20-35.

The need for aggressive young adult ministry in the church has grown significantly in recent decades, as people have waited later and later to marry. In 1960, for example, the average age at the time of marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women.

Today, the average age for men is 27; for women, 25.

What that means for many Catholic parishes is that their numbers of single young adult members are increasing — while many of their ministries or activities remain geared toward or attended primarily by couples and families.

St. Sebastian Sports is looking to fill that gap and create a sense of authentic faith-enriched community for its members.

“For many of our participants, this is their main means of gathering with other Catholics,” said Funke. “When you combine sports with the spiritual and social dimension, it opens the door to all young adults, because everyone can find something to interest them.”

What interests Catholic young adults most seems to be the opportunity to spend time with others of a similar background. Sports can be intense and competitive but, as participants have found, it can also be a great common denominator.

“It helps to be around young adults more in a social setting and talk about certain church issues with people your age,” said Aaron Kobza, a 27-year-old member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee. Kobza has participated in both the softball and volleyball program.

“I definitely feel more connected to the church through St. Sebastian,” he said.

Michael Ciaccio, a 26-year-old member of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, agreed.

“St. Sebastian Sports has helped me see that Catholics are pretty normal guys who are competitive and enjoy sports,” said Ciaccio, who has participated in men’s and coed softball. “We normally see each other only on Sundays, so it’s nice to see the normal, everyday lives and personalities of guys my age. It has helped me feel more connected to the church, especially when we pray before games.”

Ciaccio said that while guys naturally like to compete, the overall focus of the games was not entirely on winning.

“The men’s team was really competitive and we definitely want to win,” said Ciaccio, “but it seems that the camaraderie is more important.”

Planners hope to use that camaraderie to nurture players’ connection to the church. They’re also working to create opportunities for individual parish involvement as well. There are plans for young adult leaders, appointed in each parish, to head up teams made up of their own fellow young adult parishioners.

“One of our goals is parish involvement and to help bridge the gap between young adults and parishes,” said Funke. “As we keep growing, we are going to seek young adult leaders in each parish to head up parish teams, to help connect those young adults in the parishes with that parish pride or identity they were lacking — that might have previously caused them to walk away from the faith.”

The hope is for participants to form a connection — not only with other Catholic young adults in the archdiocese, but with their individual parish as well.

“We would love to see that parish pride within the leagues, where each parish has at least one team competing against other parishes,” said Funke.

Though an estimated 90 percent of St. Sebastian participants have so far been drawn from the Kansas City metropolitan area, plans are in place to expand the ministry to all areas of the archdiocese.

“The plan is to develop and form a solid organization within the metro so we can take the same model and apply it to other areas of the archdiocese,” said Funke. “That way we can hit the ground running right from the start.”

The St. Sebastian Sports model will be tentatively ready in the middle of 2010. For that to take place, Funke said the organization would need to have experience with additional sports as well as better defining the social aspect of the group.

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