By Fr. Thom Hennen
Like many people, I found myself paying more attention to professional baseball this year, especially during the post-season. While I was certainly pulling for the Chicago Cubs, I cannot admit to being a “true Cubs fan.” I am and always have been a Minnesota Twins fan. In most cases, you don’t pick your team; your team picks you. I was born into a family with Minnesota roots, and spent part of every summer visiting family in Minnesota, so cheering for the Twins just came naturally. I remember being glued to the television for both the ‘87 and ‘91 series when they won it all and I can still close my eyes and replay Kirby Puckett’s homerun-robbing center field leap. Having said that, I’ve actually been to more Cubs games than Twins games in my life: two at Wrigley and one in Milwaukee, a.k.a. “Wrigley North,” compared to just one Twins game the last year they were in the Metrodome. I have also been to a Chicago White Sox game and to a Seattle Mariners game.
Maybe I am more of a sucker for cliché Americana than I thought, but I think there is something truly beautiful and wholesome about “America’s favorite pastime,” especially when you can be at the ballpark. It is at once relaxed and exhilarating, as at one moment nothing seems to be happening and then at the crack of a bat it’s pandemonium.
In watching the series this year it got me thinking about baseball as a metaphor for the church, and particularly for vocations. One of the things that I have always loved about baseball is that while it has its share of star players, there seems to be more of a sense of team play than some other sports. Even the best pitcher or the best hitter can have an off day, and other players step up. When everybody contributes, the team is more likely to win. I think we saw that throughout the post-season this year, but especially in Game 7 of the World Series. It took everybody on both benches giving it everything they had for 10 innings. Even the oldest player on the team, playing in his last game, put up a homer.
In the same way, as we look at the church, I think we find that this truly is a team effort. Everybody plays their position and puts forth his or her best effort. We don’t all have an “all-star” day every day, but others step up. From the veteran pastor on the verge of retirement to the seminarian working his way up through the “minors” hoping to “make the show,” to the parish employee or volunteer who daily does a thankless but essential job, everybody contributes.
Another thing I’ve always liked about baseball is the quiet, steady flow of the game, in which cooler heads are more likely to prevail. You know you’ve got nine innings (or more if necessary), to get this done. It’s not all over in a flash.
In the same way, while the church may seem to plod along sometimes like a baseball game on a lazy summer afternoon, there is also a sense that not everything has to happen at once. To be sure, there are spurts of activity, especially in parish life, but there is also a sense that we’re in it until the end.
When it comes specifically to the work of promoting vocations, we can draw from both of these lessons: we all have to do our part and we need to keep the long view. As we look at our needs and to the all-too-real shortage of priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, I think we have to realize that no one pope, bishop or vocation director can turn this around. Rather, all Catholics do what they can to play their positions, to promote and encourage vocations, and to build up the church, especially through the personal witness of their lives. Also, we can’t give up too early. We can’t say “it’s all over,” when it may only be the middle of the “third inning.” Baseball is a game of hope, as Cubs fans know probably better than anybody, and so is vocations ministry. We have to keep our heads, focus on the basics and play through to the end.
As we continue to celebrate National Vocations Awareness Week and to revel (Cub fan or not) in the historic finish to a season that ended a 108-year drought, let’s try to apply some of the valuable lessons the game of baseball might have to teach us.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or hennen @davenportdiocese.org.)