Fr. Andrew Fisher pitches in for Christ

First slide

He's like the coach who helped you believe you were stronger, faster and tougher than you thought. Or the teammate who's never missed a practice and whose enthusiasm and dedication is infectious.

Father Andrew J. Fisher's main turf, though, is not the athletic fields, it's the human spirit.

The humble pastor of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale loves sports - baseball foremost - but his great passion is the Catholic faith and guiding people to be courageous and joy-filled followers of Christ.

A curve ball

Ever since he can remember, Father Fisher dreamed not of going to bat for souls, but of pitching in the major leagues. Posters of star players lined his childhood bedroom, and baseball cards filled his drawers. Summers and vacations were spent at baseball camps.

Unbeknownst to him, God was using his great love of the sport to lead him down a different road.

"God duped me," said Father Fisher, laughing. But that realization would come years, and countless baseball games, later.

Father Fisher was born in 1972, the year the Oakland Athletics won the World Series. His parents worked hard to raise him and his older brother, Stephen, in a Catholic culture. Attending St. Rita School in Alexandria, Father Fisher was an altar server at the parish.

"Faith was very much something at the center of our family's life," said Father Fisher. "It helped me growing up as a man to see the world through the eyes of faith."

That faith was strengthened by his brother's short life. Seven years his senior, Stephen was born with chronic kidney problems and spent his first 12 months in the hospital. He had two kidney transplants, neither of which worked, and was on dialysis for years.

As hard as it was to watch his brother suffer, Father Fisher sees those years as a blessing.

It helped him perceive the "beauty of life and God being at work both in the good times and in the bad," he said.

Stephen had a close relationship with the Lord and would receive the Eucharist daily. "My brother's deep faith, even amid all the suffering and trials that were going on with his medical condition, it inspired a lot of family members and friends who would stop by to visit him," said Father Fisher. It brought some back to the church and helped others grow spiritually.

His brother's death at age 21, when Father Fisher was 14, taught him that "everyone has a purpose in life," he said. "Whether it be for just a few years or a 100 years, the more we open ourselves up to God, the more God uses us. God used my brother to touch a lot of people's lives."

Change-up in the ninth

Father Fisher graduated from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, where he pitched for the Eagles, and was recruited to play baseball at a number of colleges. He settled on Division I Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, having no knowledge of the seminary attached to the school.

"Baseball was what my heart was on, but God was using that as simply a piece of the puzzle," said Father Fisher.

Once on campus, he started meeting seminarians, some of whom would attend games or chat with him while the team worked out in the gym.

Looking back, he says he had the opportunity for mini-retreats nearly every weekend. With many away games, the team logged countless miles on a bus. Father Fisher would spend four or five hours Friday and Sunday "watching the road go by and trying to figure out what God wanted from me," he said.

Slowly, God was preparing his heart for something beyond baseball, and he began praying the rosary and going to daily Mass.

"When you start going to daily Mass, you really start falling in love with the Eucharist," said Father Fisher. "Then all of sudden, you can hear God more clearly, but also whatever God asks of you, that clarity now brings courage to do what God asks."

However, baseball still filled up much of his head and heart. Going into his junior and senior years, his pitching was strong, and he enjoyed some playing time for major league scouts.

But by the end of his senior year, without any professional opportunities materializing, Father Fisher was not heartbroken. "I'd realized over the past four years, I'd fallen in love with Mass and my faith even more," he said. "I realized, OK, God is calling me to serve others, to lead them to Christ."

After four more years at Mount St. Mary's - this time at the seminary - Father Fisher was ordained by Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh May 16, 1998.

'The crown that lasts'

Following his ordination, Father Fisher served at a number of parishes in the diocese, as well as director of liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. In 2009, he was named pastor of St. Ambrose. Fluent in Spanish, he has ministered to the Hispanic community throughout the diocese.

Whatever he's doing, he draws regularly from the common language of sports.

"It's a language that connects with people, especially ones who might not consider themselves 'churched,'" he said. "Sports is a bridge to begin the conversation."

Father Fisher has given talks about the connection between sports and faith at Theology on Tap and - along with Father Joel D. Jaffe, Arlington diocesan vocations director - works with Catholic Athletes for Christ, a national Catholic sports ministry based in Alexandria. He's been involved with youth, college and professional athletic programs.

"God used lessons from sports not only in my own life, but so that I could use them to help others," said Father Fisher. "Jesus didn't tell the apostles to stop being fishermen. He told them, 'I want to make you fishers of men.'" He did not ask them to give up the knowledge and experiences they'd had but used them in a new way.

One way God has used Father Fisher's experience - and good arm - is through the DC Padres, a baseball team of local priests and seminarians who compete against high school teams and promote vocations.

As a pitcher and coach, Father Fisher takes advantage of the natural way that spiritual discussions can unfold around the baseball diamond between innings or before games.

"Some of (the high schoolers) are amazed that priests and seminarians can play," he said. "I think sometimes the thought is that they just fall out of a tree or are hatched. They are probably used to talking to priests or seminarians about the sacraments, but you go over and ask them, 'Hey, how do you hold your curve ball?' or 'Who's your favorite player?' You start talking to them, and once they've opened up, you can really start talking about the faith."

Either in cleats or a Roman collar, Father Fisher uses sports to help people comprehend how much Jesus loves them and how that love is worth fighting for.

"The lessons of sports are that you have to sacrifice, you have to work hard, and you never give up, and that's how you become good at something," he said. "And in life, it's going to take work, it's going to take good teammates, and it's going to take perseverance."

Paraphrasing St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Father Fisher added: "If an Olympian is willing to sacrifice to win a crown that fades, how much more will a disciple of Jesus sacrifice to win the crown that will last forever?"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014