North Carolina Baseball Player Finds Peace in Priestly Vocation

Once-reluctant John Cuppett is now at home in seminary.

Seminarian John Cuppett is shown with his parents.
Seminarian John Cuppett is shown with his parents. (photo: Courtesy of John Cuppett)

For years, John Cuppett was thrilled to run the bases in order to extend a single to a double, or a double to a triple. Enamored of jetting from one place to the next in the great outdoors, he also competed in cross-country running. 

One type of running, however, did not give Cuppett a thrill. The Four Oaks, North Carolina, native spent many years actively avoiding his call to the priesthood, a vocation he thought was incompatible with sports. 

This misconception was corrected during his four-year tenure as a second baseman and shortstop on the Belmont Abbey College baseball team in North Carolina. Now Cuppett not only sees sports as acceptable, but extraordinarily helpful, for young men contemplating the priesthood. 

Last fall Cuppett entered St. Joseph College Seminary, located right next to Belmont Abbey College. He recently shared his insights into sports, vocational discernment, and the peace and joy that embracing preparation for the priesthood has brought to his soul.

 

Do you think baseball is more conductive to deep spirituality than sports such as basketball or hockey, since baseball’s slower pace allows a player more time to think?

There are many positive things I have taken from sports in my life, but I think baseball in particular is more conducive to deep spirituality because of the amount of failure encountered. Baseball can be described best as a head game. Yogi Berra once humorously said that “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”

Every player has to deal with failure, and at times it gets very frustrating. It also doesn’t help that the game is played at a relatively slow pace compared to other sports. It’s very easy to get stuck on making a bad play or striking out. 

The best thing I’ve picked up from playing baseball is summarized in the catchphrase “Next Play,” which just means, forget the mistake you just made and focus on the next play. You will never be able to get through a game if all you are thinking about is that ground ball you missed back in the first inning. 

The same reasoning applies to much of what goes on in life. Christ calls us to accept the difficulties and failures we face, saying, basically, that “something bad has happened to you, so deny yourself, your pride, your anger and frustration, take up your cross and follow me.” 

It seems that baseball has not only connected very smoothly with my spiritual life, but has helped form it, in a way. Mental toughness, working well with others, friendship, overcoming adversity — these are things that I have learned on the field. That is why I have no problem proclaiming that I “think like a baseball player” here at the seminary. 

 

What are your top baseball memories?

Home runs are really cool, but I think a lot of players will agree that the best feeling in baseball is making solid contact with the ball, the way it just flies off the bat on the sweet spot, and then seeing the ball get past the outfielder, then stretching a double into a triple, sliding head first into third as your coach is flapping his arms frantically yelling “slide, slide, slide!”

Those kinds of memories I will cherish forever, along with a couple really good plays in the field that have helped my teams win really big games. However, when someone asks me what I miss about baseball, I usually say that I don’t miss the games themselves as much as I do the friendships and fraternity that I have experienced while playing. 

 

Was your apparent priestly vocation always there, or did it come to you as a surprise — like a line drive to a third baseman?

I would say that the vocation was always there. I remember as a 7-year-old, standing up in front of my extended family during a Bible study and proclaiming, “I want to be a priest!” The problem after that was I spent most of my life running from it, or pretending that it was not there. 

When the thought of priesthood came to mind, I would usually brush it away, saying, “Guys like me don’t become priests.” In my mind it was the young men who were home-schooled and grew up going to daily Mass and adoration that become priests — not the guys who played three sports in high school, had a girlfriend, and liked to get in trouble going to parties on weekends. 

However, this pull to the priesthood would keep returning. One day I simply couldn’t take it anymore and went to the adoration chapel at the Abbey, very frustrated, and said, “God, why are you torturing me like this? I don’t want this; I don’t want it.” But then God popped that image in my mind of my 7-year-old self: “I want to be a priest!” 

When a line drive is hit down third, sometimes there is not much a third baseman can do, except stick his glove out and hope for the best. Then next thing you know, he finds that he caught the ball and the opposing team shakes their heads, knowing that it could have easily gotten right by him. When I opened my eyes after God showed me this image from my childhood, I thought to myself, “Look what I found: a vocation!” And the devil shook his head, knowing God outplayed him once again. 

I realized that I have been running from something that I truly desired, and suddenly I became overwhelmed with peace and joy. St. John Paul II describes this moment in my life perfectly when he said in Gift and Mystery, “The Lord wants me to become a priest. One day I saw this with great clarity; it was like an interior illumination which brought with it the joy and certainty of a new vocation. And this awareness filled me with great inner peace.” 

 

Do you know Dr. Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey?

I do not know Dr. Thierfelder on a personal basis, other than the handful of conversations that I have had with him, although I have had the chance to meet his sons, who have also played sports at the Abbey and are really solid Catholic men. What I can say is that his leadership is unquestionable for the staff and students. 

You can’t find a student that will talk badly about Dr. Thierfelder, nor any coach or professor, whether that is because he is a former athlete himself, and can relate to a student population who are mostly athletes, or the fact he towers over everyone he meets — he is a tall man — making you want to follow his lead!

 

Have you heard of, or interacted with, athletic seminarians and priests, such as Chad Cheramie, Father Alan Benander, Father Michael Cunningham, Father Thomas Haan, Father Joe Fitzgerald or Father Joe Freedy?

I can’t say that I have met or even heard of these guys much, but when I do hear stories like theirs, they deeply inspire me and make me happy that there are other guys out there in the Church that “think like an athlete.”

We actually have a lot of athletic seminarians. Of those of us who went to high school in the area, most played sports. One was seeking to play soccer at Appalachian State University [in Boone, North Carolina], one of them even played baseball with me at the Abbey, and our rector, Father Matthew Kauth, was a bigtime football player before pursuing the priesthood.

 

I heard your seminary was a “traditional” one, in the sense of offering the Latin Mass, but is that the case?

When news spread to my parish back home in the Diocese of Raleigh that I was entering seminary for the Diocese of Charlotte, some of the people gasped in concern and asked my parents, “Didn’t you hear? It’s very traditional over there?” 

We offer the Latin Mass here at St. Joseph’s, and, as the sacristan this semester, I have the joy of learning even more about this ancient liturgy. The Latin language is not only present in the Mass at St. Joseph’s, but is a big part of overall formation here. 

As our rector, Father Matthew Kauth, explained to us when we entered, “We want to offer to you your inheritance” and plug us into 2,000 years of thought, prayer, music, visual (often architectural) art, and overall culture that has existed in the Church. 

At the seminary, we have a Latin-language course by one of the leading Latinists in the world, Nancy Llewellyn (or “Magistra,” as we call her). Along with that, we have a course in Gregorian chant, taught by Thomas F. Savoy (or as we say, “Magister Capellae”), founder/artistic director of the Carolina Catholic Chorale and president of Savoy Music House.  

During my discernment at Belmont Abbey College, before I knew much about the Charlotte Diocese or the amazing formation at St. Joseph’s, I was reading To Save a Thousand Souls by Father Brett Brannen. He states that when choosing a diocese, it should be based on the priests, because they will be the men you spend the rest of your life with. 

After meeting and interacting with the priests and seminarians, I realized that something special was going on here. It was clear that these are some of the kindest and most genuine, God-loving men I have ever encountered, and I just knew that Our Lord was calling me here. 

 

Since this is the Year of St. Joseph, do you plan on looking into him specifically, or have you already read Consecration to St. Joseph from Marian Press or The Life and Glories of St. Joseph from TAN Books, which is located not too far from the seminary and also includes Father Kauth as one of its authors?

The Life and Glories of St. Joseph was actually one of the books sitting on our desks the day we arrived here as first-year seminarians. I am reading that book currently, and it is great! As the patron here, we obviously hold St. Joseph in a very high regard, both as the adoptive father of Our Lord, but also as a shining example of purity and masculinity at the seminary. 

My grandfather passed away my third day after entering the seminary, and I remember finding the 30-day Novena to St. Joseph in our seminary prayer book. As the patron saint of departed souls, I prayed to St. Joseph for my grandad every day that first month, and I continue to pray for all the souls of the faithful departed. I still have much to learn about St. Joseph and plan to look to him in my life, especially in matters of obedience, in the future. 

 

Are you one of those seminarians “certain” of priesthood or one of those who may not be ordained yet still enjoy the process of learning the faith more deeply and living it liturgically and otherwise?

In the Gospel passage Jesus tells his disciples before his death about his resurrection and says, “I have revealed this to you now, so that later you may come to believe.” My whole life God has been forming me, and it is jam-packed with key moments that could reveal that I had a vocation, but, much like the disciples, at those times, I didn’t understand what God had in store for me.

Other than my experience as a 7-year-old, another example is when I was high school. Our parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe welcomed Father Bill John Acosta Escobar. The first Sunday of his arrival he strolled the pews and picked me out for some reason and asked if I could serve at the altar. I told him that I was a bit old by then and had not served since I was very young at my former church in Raleigh. 

My mom pulled me aside and said, “If you do not get yourself up to that altar and serve Jesus, then you will be grounded for a whole week, young man.” 

I love my mom. 

I then started serving on a consistent basis and was formed greatly by Father Bill John. He taught how special the Mass is and how it should be treated with reverence and devotion. One Sunday after processing out of Mass, he told me, “John, you’re coming to Philadelphia.” My mom answered for me, “Sure thing, Father! He’ll be on the bus; don’t you worry.”

I had no idea why I was going to Philadelphia, but that following Friday morning, at 4:30am, my dad drove me to Cardinal Gibbons High School, where I stepped on a bus with 50 other high schoolers. Only on the way to Philadelphia did I find out that this trip was for young men discerning the priesthood and that we were going to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

I still, to this day, do not know how God got me on that bus, but looking back, I can see just how much he wanted me to be a priest. And sometimes it takes a little push from Mom, as well, as seen in John 2:4-5 [the Wedding at Cana]. That’s just one story of many that have all but assured God’s plan for me and makes me “certain” of my vocation. 

 

What advice would you give to a young man who thinks he might be called to the priesthood?

When I was a sophomore at the Abbey, my roommate, Blaise, invited a seminarian friend of his (now ordained, Father Noe Ramirez de Paz), to visit. Blaise said that I needed to meet this friend of his because “You’re gonna be a priest one day.” Apparently my roommate knew more than I did! 

Father Noe gave me the best advice for discernment: Pray, pray, and pray! It was not until I developed a consistent prayer life that I became fully aware of God’s plan for me. For most people, myself included, God tends to speak with a subtle voice, but the more I pray, the more readily I recognize that voice. 

Another great piece of advice was given to me by a professor my first year in college. He said that while discerning the priesthood in his youth, he would constantly imagine his life 10 years ahead with split alternatives, either raising a family, or ministering to a parish. This exercise caused much confusion and anxiety because he simply did not know which life God was calling him to live. He found that constantly being directed to the future distracted him from the “here and now,” which, we know, is the place the Lord is present. 

Something that I always bring up during the vocation talks I give now is that if your mind is too focused on the future, then you will miss what God is doing in your life here and now. A common thing the abbot at Belmont Abbey would tell me is, “John, what are you right now? ... A student in college. So be a good student now; be a good friend; be a good baseball player and teammate. That way, whatever life God calls you to, you will be a good dad or a good priest.”

 

Do you recommend sports as a way of discerning a vocation?

It has been said that you do not have to explain Catholic virtue to an athlete because he has already lived it for years. The athlete understands what it means to give up himself for the sake of the whole team, as in a sacrifice bunt. You don’t have to explain suffering or penance to an athlete, because he already knows what it means to work hard for something. He already knows there are no shortcuts; a goal often requires long hours in the gym or on the field.

Lastly, there is something about athletes that attracts them to greatness. We love an underdog story, a come-from-behind win, or a last-second game-winner. I think this most of all is what makes the faith so attractive to athletes, and myself especially. 

The greatest underdog story of all time, Jesus … from Nazareth (of all places), ultimately conquerors evil by performing the greatest act of love and sacrifice this world will ever know. Then his sandlot group of ragtag fishermen follow that up by spreading this good news throughout the farthest known reaches of the earth. 

You could say that I’m drawn to taking that baton and doing my own part on the team of priests today. That’s the type of running I was really meant for.

 

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.

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.

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