As a teenager, Burke Masters dreamed of playing Major League Baseball. While he did not make the roster of the Chicago Cubs or any other MLB team, he is now closer to the pinnacle of baseball than he ever expected to be.
Masters played at Mississippi State University in the late 1980s and had a short career in the minor leagues. After leaving baseball long ago, Father Burke Masters returned to it in 2012 as the Catholic chaplain of the Cubs. When he is not advancing the spiritual interests of baseball players, the 49-year-old convert heads the Office of Vocations for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.
Father Masters spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in anticipation of tonight’s game of the World Series, which is tied at one game apiece after the Cubs’ win against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday.
Are you surprised at how well the Cubs have done this year?
No, not at all. In fact, someone recently reminded me that I had said in 2014 that the next year the Cubs would do well, but 2016 would be the really big year. The team has many young guys who are very talented and share a pure joy in playing baseball, so it’s not surprising that they’ve done so well. When you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s much easier to do it well.
Since you played at Mississippi State and then in the minor leagues, do you ever think about how you could be out there playing?
Not when Aroldis Chapman is throwing 100-plus-mile-per-hour fastballs. However, sometimes when guys are struggling with off-speed pitches, I do think of how I could maybe hit those pitches. At my age, though, the overall mindset regarding baseball is that I’m just thankful to still be around the game. I have no regrets or big, unfulfilled ambitions; I’m content with things as they are.
Are you also the chaplain for the White Sox?
The White Sox have their own chaplain, so I don’t see current players such as Alex Avila or former players such as Chris Nyman like I do the Cubs. I do see White Sox players from time to time — and players from any visiting team — since both teams are invited to the stadium Masses at Wrigley Field. When I started as chaplain four years ago, it was just me and one player. Now, word has gotten out: We get 30 to 40 people, because it’s not just for players, but coaches, execs and stadium workers, too.
That’s something I really appreciate about those Masses — that you’ll see a Major League All-Star sitting next to an usher or a peanut salesman. It shows how, in God’s eyes, we all have inherent worth, and that is not changed by profession or socioeconomic status. Catholics come from so many different backgrounds, but are united in faith at the Mass. It’s only fitting, since “Catholic” means “universal.”
The Masses at Wrigley Field are scheduled through Catholic Athletes for Christ, which also hosts a yearly Major League Baseball retreat in California. I’ve met many players through the retreat and other events, such as Mike Sweeney’s Catholic Baseball Camp. We’ve had a camp in Joliet the past two years, which has been a very beneficial experience. You can expect that from something that originated with Mike Sweeney, who has a heart filled with faith and love of God.
Your main job is vocations director for the Diocese of Joliet. What is your favorite aspect of that?
I really enjoy being able to work with young men over an extended period of time to discern their calling and respond to it. I have the blessing of seeing them in high school and then going into the seminary, maturing into fantastic Catholic men and then, oftentimes, being ordained.
There is a very real fatherly aspect to priesthood, and I feel like a father to these men, not only when they discern toward marriage, but especially when they discover a calling to priesthood. It can be likened to a natural father who wants his sons to go into his own profession. There’s a special connection that’s shared.
How did you come to know you were called to be a priest?
I didn’t grow up Catholic, but I did go to a Catholic high school. May parents were concerned about the quality of public-school education, so thought it was better for me to go to Providence High School in New Lenox, Illinois.
In my junior year, I went on a retreat and, not knowing I was not supposed to do so, received holy Communion at Mass. God works in mysterious ways, because, despite my ignorance of basic liturgical practices, I could really sense the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament I had just received.
That sparked a deep interest in Catholicism, which prompted me to take instruction in the faith from a priest for a year. Then, as a senior, I was baptized — which, quite amazingly, remits any and all sins and all temporal punishment due to them — confirmed, and then received holy Communion properly as a Catholic.
So the priesthood was not something you were initially drawn to as a convert?
No, not at first. Even though I had drawn closer to God in a very big way, baseball dominated my thinking at the time. I wanted to play Major League Baseball, so the priesthood wasn’t even an option at the time.
I went off to Mississippi State University and had a great time with baseball there. In my senior year, 1990, I went 6-for-6 in a regional game, which included a Grand Slam to get the team into the College World Series. I had been “in the zone” in much of the postseason, but quickly “fell out” of it once we got to the World Series.
Many of my teammates were drafted, but I was not. I did get to play minor league ball for a season, and when that ended, I decided to get a master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio University. I wanted to be the general manager of the White Sox or Cubs and win a World Series.
However, I started going to silent Eucharistic adoration and, through that, sensed a call to the priesthood. Like many young men, I didn’t really want to respond to it at first, but said to the Lord that if he really wanted me to become a priest, he would have to make it very clear to me. Well, in the next month or so, many people walked up and asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest.
The call became clearer and clearer, so I dropped all my baseball ambitions, was ordained and can now say I’m very content being a priest. I hope to have the longer version of the story out in a book next year through Lighthouse Catholic Media.
Have you found that, because you dropped baseball, that you got it back in a more profound way?
That was really brought home to me very well earlier this year. It was in spring training that [Cubs manager] Joe Maddon asked me if I wanted to practice with the team. I was happy to do so and thought it might be fun, but the big goal at my age was really not to embarrass myself.
I suited up and was on the field with the players as they were stretching and taking batting practice. I stood there with tears in my eyes, thinking of my circuitous journey to a Major League field. It was like God was saying to me, “You didn’t get to live your dream as a player, but now you’re living mine as a priest.” God’s dream, while not centered on baseball, did include it, so I’ve been able to get everything in the priesthood — yet it would not have happened unless I had given up baseball to begin with
Joe had told me that the guys would break up into two teams after the initial warm-ups, so I should just choose one team and go with them wherever they were headed to. I was not paying attention to the specific players I was around, but when we got settled, it turned out that I had followed the starting lineup.
Addison Russell walked up to me, apparently thinking I was some guy invited to try out for the team, and he introduced himself. I then introduced myself as Burke. Shortly after that, another player who knows me intervened and “outed me” as Father Burke Masters. It was a funny experience.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Beacon, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.