Once a month, Catholic families in the Auburn area gather at a local sports center to share an afternoon of faith, fellowship and recreation.
During each installment of this new initiative — dubbed Champions of Faith — children have the opportunity to play tennis, soccer and gymnastics with other children and interact with a priest, who also gives a brief talk about the Catholic faith and about a designated virtue.
Organizers hope Champions of Faith will strengthen connections between Catholic families and encourage them to attend Mass more frequently, according to Karen Odrzywolski, who belongs to St. Alphonsus Parish in Auburn.
“We really wanted to find a way to get people together as a greater church family in a setting that would … appeal to people — especially children — but also where parents could gather, talk and get to know one another,” explained Odrzywolski, who organized Champions of Faith with several other mothers from her parish, including Meg Gremli.
Gatherings grew out of moms’ realization that many families were missing from the pews
The first Champions of Faith gathering took place April 16, but the initiative grew out of conversations that took place between Gremli, Odrzywolski and the other mothers several months earlier, prompted by their realization that there weren’t as many families in the pews around them at Mass as there had been just a few years ago.
“Just looking around the church, we’re not seeing as many kids being involved in Mass or even being present at Mass. We identified a need to get kids involved in the church. Obviously, that’s the future of the Catholic Church,” remarked Gremli, who, along with Odrzywolski, is on the combined pastoral council for the clustered parishes of St. Alphonsus, Holy Family and Sacred Heart in Auburn and St. Ann in Owasco.
Gremli and Odrzywolski aren’t sure exactly why there are fewer families at Mass lately. Some families might have fallen out of the habit of attending Mass while churches were closed due to the pandemic, and others might be prioritizing sporting events or practices over Mass, they guessed. Whatever the reason, the women believe getting families to engage with the Catholic community will have positive long-term effects.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to get kids and families involved with faith-based activities outside of the church,” Gremli said. “If we can hook them now, they’ll continue and want to take on different roles in the church as they grow up.”
Champions of Faith gatherings incorporate time for play and prayer
Gremli and Odrzywolski knew the monthly gatherings would only be successful if they took place at a location that was appealing to children, so they were thrilled when the Auburn-based nonprofit Champions for Life Inc. agreed to host the events at its sports center. The organization is dedicated to building character through sports, fostering love of God and respect for others, and promoting family unity and the dignity of the human person.
Since Champions for Life Sports Center is a popular place for birthday parties as well as soccer games and tennis and gymnastics lessons, it hasn’t been hard to attract families to the monthly gatherings, Odrzywolski said. Each Champions of Faith gathering includes plenty of time for the children to utilize the facility’s equipment as well as time for free play, Gremli said.
At the inaugural Champions of Faith event April 16, some children used the gymnastics equipment or played soccer or tag in the center’s arena, while others played tennis with Father Stephen Karani, pastor of the Catholic Community of Holy Family, Sacred Heart, St. Alphonsus and St. Ann. They also took a break from playing long enough to pray together and listen to Father Karani talk about the virtue of obedience.
Gatherings build bridges between Catholics and could inspire vocations
Father Karani appreciates the way the Champions of Faith gatherings allow children to see how their faith is not something to keep separate from the rest of their lives, he said.
“It is like teaching the children that God is always present in every activity or aspect of our lives — at play, at school, at home and at work,” he said.
Spending time with a priest outside of church can be an eye-opening yet valuable experience for children, Gremli said.
“It kind of allows the children to see this is someone I can go to any time if I have questions or concerns or want to see how I can grow closer to God. It’s even a way to potentially inspire children to consider vocations,” Odrzywolski said.
The Champions of Faith events provide children with an opportunity to socialize with kids they know from Mass and faith-formation classes at their own parishes, as well as other children they may know from school but who attend other parishes. All of the gatherings are open to all Catholics in the area, regardless of which parishes they attend, Odrzywolski said.
“We are all part of the same Catholic body here. I think it’s important, not just for children but for people of all ages, to be building bridges with one another. … We want to be that beacon where we draw people together, we draw people to God,” she said.Tags: Cayuga County News, Faith Formation