If things had turned out how he had originally planned, Father Michael Cunningham, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, would have been in the MLB playoff hunt right now. He could catch very well, as former Major League pitcher Tom Browning, who threw a perfect game in 1988, told him. However, Father Cunningham’s brief 2004 stint with the Florence Freedom ended because of insufficient offensive production.
Now, Father Cunningham is focused, not on catching pitches, but on “catching” souls. The 37-year-old South Carolina native is convinced that the world can be converted through the joy that Catholics show in practicing their faith. He is getting a chance to demonstrate that at the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore, his first assignment since being ordained in May.
Father Cunningham recently spoke of his baseball career, his “slow but quick” path to ordination in the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and current plans for renovation at the shrine, which is located, coincidentally, less than 1 mile from Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles. Father Cunningham also offers his prayers for those affected by Hurricane Florence, although his own family and friends were largely unaffected.
Who was your favorite MLB team growing up?
Even though I’m from South Carolina, my favorite team was not the Atlanta Braves, the closest one geographically. My father was from just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, so he was a huge Cardinals fan, so that rubbed off on me. My other favorite team was the Cincinnati Reds, my Ohio-native mother’s home team.
We made a trip to Atlanta in 1989 and got to meet some of the Cardinals in their hotel. Tony Pena talked to me and my older brother for 20 minutes — not about baseball, but about being polite young men, being sure to say “Yes, sir,” and things like that. It’s not what we were expecting, but it was more valuable than baseball knowledge.
I liked Wally Joyner, but Pete Rose was my favorite player. He was one of the greatest hitters ever, but his off-the-field problems took him away from managing the game before the Reds won the 1990 World Series. Lou Piniella took over for that season, and it was very memorable, with the Reds staying in first place in their division all year and then winning the whole thing at the end.
You became good enough to play in college and even professionally.
I played at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, but I couldn’t get healthy. Injuries and illnesses prevented me from being the starter — not to mention one of the other catchers later on played for the San Diego Padres organization. After one year, I transferred to the much smaller University of South Carolina-Aiken, despite not initially knowing where it was. I played three years there, including a really good junior season.
My last collegiate at-bat was a game-winning single, followed by my teammates mobbing me at first base. There is so much failure in baseball, so to end my college days on such a high note was truly memorable. Even though we didn’t make the postseason, we did reach 30 wins, and the last game was our own little championship. That was a little piece of heaven.
The very next day I signed with the Florence Freedom, an independent league team in northern Kentucky. Things were going very well, but they would come to a halt. I was cut fairly quickly, which was enough of a shock, since I had never been cut from any team before. On top of that, the grandmother of the host family I was staying with in Florence died, one of my car windows was broken, and my girlfriend broke up with me — all in one week. I was living out a country music song.
How did you get out of that rut?
Even though I wouldn’t be playing baseball again, I could still be in the sport through coaching, so that’s what I got into. It was nice to continue in baseball, but there were challenges that you just don’t have as a player.
The difference between playing and coaching is like the difference between checkers and chess. As a player, you just tend to care about your stats that day. As a coach, you care about all the stats — especially wins and losses — and you care about lineups and how your actions now might affect the future. Coaching is much more complicated and stressful than playing.
After three years of coaching, I started working for an orthopedic surgeon. The job paid well, so I had a house and car — not to mention, a good group of friends. Things were going well, but I was only on my way to something rather than fully living out a vocation.
What was the big change?
In 2010, my buddy Joel Raines invited me to Prince of Peace parish in Taylors, South Carolina. I had never been to a traditional Latin Mass before, so was unsure what to do or say at it. I watched my buddy’s kids to see which postures and gestures would be right, so I was being led into tradition by people much younger than I was.
You must have been extremely impressed by the traditional Latin Mass in order to be ordained in the FSSP just eight years later.
You could say that my vocation was, like the game of baseball, slow but quick. The overall pace of baseball is not fast, but the individual plays can be very fast. You might wait three innings to see someone make contact with the ball, but then the shortstop might throw him out before you can blink.
It was, relatively speaking, a fast journey from the first Latin Mass to FSSP ordination, but even though I really enjoyed that first Mass, I didn’t know immediately that I would be an FSSP priest. Like a lot of young men, it was not something I thought of seriously. Then, one quiet day, I was home alone and unexpectedly started contemplating whether I should be a priest.
After that, I discerned through more prayer, reading good books such as To Save a Thousand Souls, and talking with good priests. Even though — and actually because — I held the priesthood in high esteem, I was still unsure whether it was for me. Then, one day, I flat out asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to ask her Son what he wanted me to do — whether that was marriage or priesthood — and then I’d do it.
Shortly after that talk with my spiritual mother … my biological mother opened her purse to unclutter it and, quite oddly, pulled out what looked like a craft from a little kid. She didn’t have a clue who made it or how it got there, but it was a cross of red, spongy material and looked like a present from a kid for someone older.
Mom was doing this unbeknownst to me as I was busy praying my Rosary. She laid the cross on the table without any intent of sending me a message and went to bed. While I was about to finish the Rosary, I caught sight of the red cross, which had the name “Mike” written on its vertical beam with a heart below the name. There was something else written on the horizontal beam, but it was faded just enough to force me to pick the cross up to get a better view. The horizontal beam spelled out the word “Father.”
The “Father Mike” message was clear enough, so I pursued a vocation to the priesthood. I did not realize how many different types of Catholic priests there were, so I was not sure where to go. In my uncertainty, I asked the Blessed Mother again. I said, “Mom, I’m pretty sure your Son wants me to be a priest, but what kind of priest does he want me to be?” That answer was revealed about 15 minutes later, when I returned home to find out that my biological mother had recorded a documentary on the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s seminary in Denton, Nebraska.
I applied to the FSSP’s seminary and still remember opening the acceptance letter as I leaned against a wall. I was so shocked that I actually slid all the way down the wall to the floor.
When I arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska, I was still hesitant about becoming a priest. This was in sharp contrast to another newly arrived seminarian I met on my first day. He was absolutely elated about being there. I didn’t share that same enthusiasm. The first thing I said to myself when I had moved into my room was, “What did I just do?”
How did you become more certain about priesthood?
I persevered in prayer, reading and spiritual direction, and was open to the rich liturgical life before me. With the chanting of the Divine Office and Mass every day, I was able to be a part of something that drew me into the great mystery of salvation.
I had been “working the faith” in the sense that, despite my hesitation, I was fulfilling a duty like a hired worker would. At some point, I started “playing the faith” in the sense that I was doing what God wanted me to do out of a realization that it was not only for the sake of a future reward, but that it was inherently worth doing now.
Kids play baseball because it’s fun. Sure, there might be thoughts of winning the World Series or getting a big paycheck one day, but that’s not the primary reason kids play. We should see Catholicism in a similar way. We should take delight in the Mass, in the Rosary, in giving food to the poor, in asking people if they’ve ever thought of becoming Catholic, and even, as St. Thérèse did so well, in daily annoyances.
To be sure, there will be rewards beyond our imaginations in the next life if we persevere in living out the faith here, but in the meantime, we should not see it as drudgery, but as a loving invitation from Our Father to be saints. If we enjoy each stop along the way, then the joy we manifest will convert the world, one soul at a time, because people will want what we have.
You were assigned to the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore. Did you know anything about the Italian doctor of the Church before arriving?
Yes, my mother’s side of the family is actually from Naples, the region St. Alphonsus is from. He is a huge figure in the Church, and despite being underappreciated today, he is popular among traditional Catholics. Maybe that’s due in part to some of his many books being available from TAN/St. Benedict Press.
Another way I had known about St. Alphonsus was through traditional Redemptorist seminarians in Nebraska. Their community is based on the island of Papa Stronsay, Scotland, but because they are not large enough to have their own seminary, they use ours.
You’re renovating the Liguori shrine. How far along is that project?
We have experienced 300% growth in Mass attendance since Father [Joel] Kiefer arrived in Baltimore last summer. Things are certainly going in the right direction, but the renovation project is still in the beginning stages, so we’re still very much looking for funds.
The Gothic church structure itself is in fantastic shape and has great stained-glass windows, but, like any old building, it does need improvements involving plaster, paint and other things. We’d like to restore it to its former glory — how it looked when St. John Neumann and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos were priests here in the mid-1800s.
What are your thoughts on the FSSP turning 30 this year?
Well, it’s amazing that I’m older than the FSSP and that I know some of its founders. Not many priests can say that about the society, order or diocese they belong to, but despite being very young, we’re growing and doing a lot of good things. I’m very pleased to be part of a group that was started by a saint, John Paul II, and that is responding to a renewed interest in tradition.
It brings me back to a Mass John Paul II offered in South Carolina when I was a little kid. I only remember a few things about it, and I certainly didn’t know I would be a priest one day, but now that my vocation has been sealed, it seems like there’s a completion that John Paul II has had a hand in.
John Paul II knew of the value of sports, too.
Yes, the Church is becoming more aware of how sports can be used to pass along the faith. My older brother Steve and I knew all the batting stances of the Cardinals and Reds, so we would face off in the backyard. He would be the entire Reds lineup, with me as a pitcher, and then I would be the entire Cardinals lineup with him as the pitcher. Can you imagine what Catholics could do if we had half that interest in the “batting stances” of the Our Lord and the saints — that is, the specific characteristics of how they lived?
Well, baseball and faith really came together for me recently, when I got to have lunch with Cody Clark and take him on a tour of the shrine. He was the bullpen catcher for the Royals’ 2015 World Series-winning team and is now a scout for the Royals. He knows batting stances and so many other things better than anyone, yet he also knows the importance of his stance in life and Who it is that he should imitate, that being Jesus Christ.
I really wanted to play in the majors, but that would have prevented me from being where I am today. Tom Browning, who helped with coaching the Florence Freedom, told me, “Son, you can really catch.” However, the team didn’t think I knew how to hit well enough to have a long pro career. At the time, being released felt like one of the worst moments of my life; but looking back, it was one of the best things that could have happened. I wasn’t supposed to be catching baseballs anymore; God was steering me to catch souls, or as Our Lord put it in Mark 1:17, be a fisher of men.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.