Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 6, will conclude Father Jim Baraniak’s 14th year as the chaplain for the Green Bay Packers. And he is getting ready for his first Super Bowl sermon at the team Mass before the Packers take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Father Baraniak posted his request for homily ideas two weeks ago on his blog (Baraniak.blogspot.com), immediately following the Packers’ victory over the Chicago Bears that secured their spot in the Super Bowl.
He has been humbled by the outpouring of responses and suggestions on what to say before the big game.
“I asked people for some help and, boy, were they helpful,” Father Baraniak says. “It was just beautiful the things that people have been writing all week. I will incorporate some of that.”
Some suggestions: “Vince Lombardi had it right: Winning may be the only thing, but in the end we’ll all be judged by our works. After all of this Super Bowl hype dies down, go back to being salt of the earth for your fellow man. Another great quote from Lombardi is: ‘Think of only three things: your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers, in that order.’ Keep the first two in the right order, and the last one will take care of itself.”
And another: “While they do not want to lose flavor or hide their talents under a basket, they must recognize who their gifts come from and give all glory and honor to God.”
There was also this: “Let the world see Christ in the way you play today. Let the world see what we are all called to do: Be unselfish. Play for each other; do not hold anything back. Play for Christ.”
Father Baraniak has been a Norbertine priest for 18 years. In addition to serving as the Packers’ chaplain, the Wisconsin native is the pastor of St. Norbert’s College Church in nearby De Pere, Wis. He also serves as a chaplain for the men incarcerated at the Green Bay Correctional Center.
Under the direction of Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy, Father Baraniak’s ministry to the Green Bay organization has become an all-year commitment.
He likes to say that his football season kicks off at the end of February in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. The invitation-only practice session is where the nation’s top college football players show off their talent in preparation for the upcoming NFL draft in April.
The chaplain says that, thanks to the hard work of Catholic Athletes for Christ, the event has also become an annual meeting of sorts for all the Catholic chaplains who serve in the NFL. For the past two years, and again this year, he will serve as the main celebrant at the event’s Mass.
“Last year we had about 140 NFL coaches and staff at the Mass,” Father Baraniak says. “The coaches like to give me some good-natured ribbing, as I’m vested in green and gold for Ordinary Time at the Mass, and as everyone knows, those are the colors of the Green Bay Packers.”
During the spring and summer months, the priest is present for all the camps and training sessions leading up to and during the preseason. His regular-season schedule includes Mass on Sundays and on game days. When the Packers play at home, he offers Mass early in the morning, around 7:30, at the stadium, Lambeau Field.
“You are free to make any theological conclusions from that,” he notes with a chuckle in regards to where Mass is celebrated.
He says the home-game Masses are attended by about 20 people, including players and coaches. When he joins the team on the road, that number goes up to 40.
This January, those numbers increased as the Packers made their way through the playoffs.
“It was like Easter morning earlier this month,” says Father Baraniak. “Just as Easter is our ‘Super Bowl’ in the Catholic Church, and we get people showing up because it’s important, so too during the playoffs: You see people coming out of the woodwork for Catholic Mass.”
Part of the Pack
Father Baraniak has only the utmost respect for Coach McCarthy. He says part of the team’s success this year is due to McCarthy’s relationship with his players.
Despite numerous injuries midway through the season, the Packers stayed strong, and before they knew it, they were headed to the playoffs.
“Those players love this man. He has such respect from his players. I think that is, in part, because he is the real man. He gets emotional with these guys, and he loves them,” Father Baraniak notes. “He is willing to affirm them and to challenge them. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The team chaplain explains that his ministry to the Packers is very much like that of running a parish. Mass is just one aspect of his service. He is there to hear confessions; he has done baptisms, marriage prep, and even a handful of funerals for those connected to the Packers organization.
“You take that helmet off, or you take those pads away, and these guys have the same pastoral needs as you and me,” he shares.
With this in mind, Father Baraniak knows his place and his role on the team. He says he’s not there to snag autographs or to suggest plays on the field. That hasn’t always been the easiest for a kid who grew up some 80 miles north of Green Bay rooting for the Pack.
“I have had to put the fan to the side,” he says. “I hope I have earned the players’ respect, because I respect them, and they know that. I will never judge them. That is not my job. I try to give them the time of day. I am affirming of them. I am appropriately challenging of them, particularly for them to be the best people they can possibly be.”
At away games he has a special responsibility. Wallets, cell phones and watches are kept in individual bank bags in the team’s locker room during away games. At the end of the fourth quarter, it’s Father Baraniak’s job to hand out the bags to each of the players before the team boards their buses — and he chats as he does so.
“Briefly, I have a chance to discuss the game with each of the players on their way out. I affirm them or challenge them. I’m there to give them a shot in the arm or to console them, perhaps, if they have had a bad game. It’s been tremendous.”
As the big game draws near and he gathers ideas and reflects on what he will say in Dallas, the longtime Packers’ priest is certain of a few things: “We will not pray for victory, at least not publicly. They can do that on their own. We will be praying for those who will be traveling to and from Dallas. We will be praying for our families. We will be praying for our opponents. We will be praying for those who have fallen through the cracks and aren’t feeling on top of the world. We will pray for what the Church expects you to pray for.”
Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.