Faith on the Field
Chaplain scores big with Packers.
By James Breig
When the Green Bay Packers suit up for the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Dallas, sliding into their shoulder pads and fastening their helmets, a key member of the team will be donning another piece of gear: a Roman collar.
Father James Baraniak, O. Praem., is the team’s Catholic chaplain, a role he has filled for 14 seasons. He was recommended for it by one of the team’s physicians, who was a member of the priest’s parish at the time.
Father Baraniak, who was born and raised about 90 minutes from Green Bay, said, “I have always been a fan of the Packers and followed them. It was a dream come true” to be named their chaplain.
Packers’ chaplain Father James Baraniak, in the Roman collar amid coaches and players, does a little more than pray on the sidelines during the game. (Photo courtesy Green Bay Packers)
Although he assumed the role in time for Green Bay’s last Super Bowl appearance in 1998, the Norbertine priest didn’t get to go to the game. “My predecessor left his sabbatical to travel with the team,” he recalled with a laugh, “so I didn’t.” As a result, the 2011 game will be his first taste of the championship contest.
His duties as chaplain have grown over the years as successive “Mikes” have led the squad. Father Baraniak started his stint with the team when it was coached by Mike Holmgren, “and I celebrated game-day Masses,” he said.
Under the next coach, Mike Sherman, Father Baraniak continued, “I offered Masses during training camp and at mini-camps.”
The current head coach, Mike McCarthy, added Masses on holy days, a draft day Mass and liturgies during rookie training, the priest said. “Now, wherever the Packers are, I celebrate Mass.”
But Mass isn’t his only responsibility. “I have the opportunity to offer pastoral care and counseling,” the chaplain noted. “I also do preparation for the sacraments, such as weddings and baptisms.” When the prep work is done, the sacraments are almost always celebrated on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, where the Packers train and where the priest is pastor of Old St. Joseph-St. Norbert parish on the campus.
Father Baraniak credits McCarthy, a Catholic, for bringing “a holistic approach to the players’ well-being.”
He added, “The team provides the right resources for them: educational opportunities, relocation and wives’ programs. The chapel is part of that. Mike’s mantra is that ‘physicality gets you in the door, but head and heart take over once you’re inside.’ He constantly preaches that the players have to make good choices and says, ‘NFL stands for Not For Long’ because their careers are so short. The players have to have something to lean back on when their playing days end. The chapel addresses those issues.”
As part of his Packers’ duties, the priest often gives a talk titled “Hero to Zero.” He said that he “talks about men falling from grace. It deals with what leads up to that, how to avoid it, how to respond when it happens, how to build yourself back up and how to make better choices. Everyone falls, but we don’t have paparazzi following us around. The players are coping with great amounts of money and temptations on the road.”
He considers all of the players his parishioners. “I’m a pastor for all, not just the Catholics,” he said. At the college, the student body is 63 percent Roman Catholic, so he is accustomed to counseling people who belong to other faiths. He noted that “the Protestants on the Packers come to Mass because they want all the spirituality they can get.”
As the only chaplain who travels with the Packers, Father Baraniak knows the players as more than gigantic figures clad in uniforms.
“I see them with their families,” he said. “The men pour out on the field as goliaths. They are brutes on the gridiron. But, after the game, I see them with their children and wives. I see their tender, softer side.”
During the Super Bowl, the priest will be in the owner’s box for three quarters. As the final quarter begins, he will make his way down to the locker room, where he has a very unusual duty.
“I have to get there quickly,” he explained, “to hand out their valuables.” The players store their watches, wallets and money clips in a safe, and the priest helps pass them out. Doing so, he noted, “allows me to speak with each player about the game.”
Reflecting on his time with the Packers, Father Baraniak said, “they are a great organization. People think the players are privileged and overpaid, but they are very good people. When they take off their uniforms, we are all the same.”
James Breig is a veteran of the Catholic press.