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Organization that ministers to Catholic athletes revs back up after a year stalled by the pandemic

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Catholic Athletes for Christ is calling an audible. For the past year, pandemic-related social distancing has prevented the organization that supports Catholic athletes from hosting pre-game Masses for pro football and baseball players. But, with the NFL draft concluded and teams pointing toward training camp, CAC is getting back in the game on a limited basis by offering pre-recorded Bible study sessions to current National Football League players.

Each week, a CAC chaplain from one of the NFL’s 32 teams presents Catholic players and their interested teammates with a different hourlong reflection on the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Though the synoptics are not known for their sports writing, Fr. J.D. Jaffe, CAC’s liaison to the NFL, says that the sessions are helping connect teammates to Christ as they connect remotely with each other.

“We know that the Lord encourages us to look for ways to bring forth growth from all things,” said Father Jaffe, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling.

“Like anything else, (the pandemic) is an opportunity for growth.”

An opportunity and, alas for CAC, a daunting challenge.

Fourteen months and counting since COVID-19 precautions prompted shutdowns, fans are making their way back to professional baseball games and other live sporting events. Pro football hopes to bring back fans, not just cardboard facsimiles, in greater numbers this fall.

But safety rules in many localities, including the District of Columbia, continue to block or limit the close contact that chaplains rely on to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, conduct catechesis and provide the informal guidance that has been the hallmark of Catholic Athletes for Christ since its founding in 2006.

In Washington, for instance, CAC is waiting to see whether the city’s “re-opening,” currently set for June 11, will permit the close contact needed to re-establish pregame Masses.

“We’ve had such a great dislocation,” said Ray McKenna, 63, the Washington attorney who founded CAC in 2006 and serves as its president. “What we’re doing now is radically different.”

In an ironic way, what CAC has lost to the pandemic is a testament to how far the organization has come in the 15 years since its founding.

Before COVID-19 struck, CAC coordinated pre-game Sunday Masses and Saturday night vigil Masses at most of the 30 Major League Baseball parks for NFL teams. An annual autumn retreat for professional baseball players, coaches and staff had to be scrubbed, as was Mass, food and fellowship at the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.

Before travel shut down, Catholic ballplayers joined McKenna at a sports conference at the Vatican. With Linda Del Rio, CAC board member, longtime volunteer for Catholic Causes and wife of Washington Football Team defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, he presented Pope Francis with a souvenir football.

Perhaps most poignant, chapters that CAC had begun to form for high school athletes went into hibernation as high school sports stopped. According to its most recent IRS filing, the pre-pandemic CAC counted approximately 750 high school members in the Philadelphia area. Chapters also were being formed in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Texas and New York, with more states to come, McKenna said. Those are on hold, pending the return of high school sports and high school sports fans.

And fundraising has taken a hit. CAC relies on often spontaneous contributions from attendees at in-person events for much of its modest budget — about $216,000 in 2018, according to the group’s federal tax filing. The group spent all but about $1,500 of that. Most went to retreat expenses and the cost of developing a CD and a DVD promoting the need for Catholics in sports to live their faith.

Confronting challenges has been a hallmark of CAC since McKenna founded the organization. Back then, he was a Washington lawyer fresh from service as the General Services Administration’s general counsel from 2001 to 2004. His prior service included stints at the Justice Department, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and on the legal staff of the House of Representatives.

Since his days as a sandlot third baseman in his native Bronx, N.Y., McKenna has been a baseball zealot.

Volunteering with the minor league Prince William Cannons in the early 2000s, McKenna noticed that Protestant ballplayers, especially evangelicals, were organized and vocal about witnessing their faith. Catholics players, not so much.

Curious, he inquired further. At the major league level, McKenna found that some teams had informal relationships with hometown priests, but that there was no organized network, scheduling or liaison with local dioceses. Tapped as one of CAC’s first volunteers, Father Jaffe found that football had a similar problem, compounded by the tightly scripted nature of pre-game activities, with no more than 30 minutes typically allotted for “chapel time” on the night before games.

“We’re talking 27-minute Masses,” Father Jaffe said. “If you’re in the middle of a big (homily) and time runs out, the players are going get up and go to another meeting.”

CAC’s Sunday Masses were an immediate hit with faithful Catholics accustomed to scrambling to work the celebration of Mass into their game day schedule. Mike Sweeney and Sal Bando, the former Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s stars, were Sunday Mass regulars who have posted tributes to CAC’s chaplains.

In addition to Masses, priests found that players began to rely on them for confession, pre-nuptial counseling, general pastoral advice or just a shoulder to lean on.

“The players are celebrities, they’re in the spotlight, but first and foremost they are your parish,” said Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, research professor of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington and the Washington Nationals’ chaplain. “And like Catholics in any parish, they have needs.”

In fact, the stories that the chaplains tell most often concern their pastoral work. McKenna tells of players who have returned to the sacraments after joining chaplains for Mass. Msgr. Rossetti remembers a Nats player, not a Catholic, saying,w “boy, do we need you” and asking for help in the locker room during a losing streak. Father Jaffe recalls celebrating Mass at the NFL combine during a recent Ash Wednesday. NFLers with ashes on their foreheads asked the priest to pose with them for selfies. They planned to send the photos to their kids back home to encourage them in the faith tradition.

“They were being good parents, and I was happy to help out,” Msgr. Rossetti said.

For his part, McKenna is praying that more of those kinds of stories will be forthcoming, and soon, as ballparks begin to open to more fans. For now, he is keeping busy monitoring pandemic distancing rules in MLB’s 30 cities and staying in touch with the baseball clubs and his team of willing chaplains.

“We are kind of feeling our way back, trying to work within the rules,” McKenna said. “We’ll get there.”

Willing is a freelancer in McLean.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021