Two Catholics and the Catholic game

Baseball is by far the most Catholic of the sports on which we lavish such attention and passion.

Because it’s played without a clock, baseball is like the liturgy: a foretaste of the time-beyond-time, which is God’s time, which is eternity. Baseball is also spatially eschatological or infinite: in theory, a baseball field could extend forever – as center field in New York’s old Polo Grounds seemed to do, except when patrolled by a higher spirit in human form who made space (and Vic Wertz’s home run in the 1954 World Series) disappear: Willie Mays.

And let’s not forget baseball and Catholic social doctrine.
The social doctrine has four foundational principles – human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Each of them may be found in baseball, a game played by communitarian individuals who live freedom for excellence such that personal achievement contributes to the general welfare through a well-ordered division of hierarchical responsibilities exercised in cooperative teamwork. (I once tried to explain this to Pope St. John Paul II: without success, alas.)

The Catholicity of baseball also extends to many of the pastime’s noblest people, on and off the field. Two of them come to mind as the 2016 season unfolds.
The first is Bill Freehan, an 11-time All-Star catcher for the Detroit Tigers who deserves a good look by the committee responsible for correcting the mistakes made by earlier Hall of Fame voters. Freehan’s greatest season was 1968. And without him the Tigers wouldn’t have won the World Series that year, for he made the crucial play at the plate that prevented the Cardinals’ Lou Brock from scoring, thus turning the tide in game five, which the Tigers went on to win – along with games six and seven.
Freehan’s daughter Cathy is a member of my parish and I had the pleasure of meeting the Tiger great on a few occasions when he was visiting his grandchildren. We talked, as baseball people do, of the past: He told me how much he’d enjoyed competing against Frank and Brooks Robinson of my Orioles, and he loved the story of how Baltimore fans bombarded showboating Reggie Jackson with hot dogs dispensed from the upper deck when Reggie played his first game in Memorial Stadium after abandoning Baltimore for the fleshpots of New York and the overbearing Yankees.

Bill Freehan, a serious Catholic and a true sportsman, is now in hospice care, another victim of Alzheimer’s Disease. He has my support in prayer and I hope he has yours, too – even if you’re a St. Louis fan with unhappy memories of 1968.

Then there’s 88-year-old Vin Scully, who’ll retire from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ broadcast booth at the end of this season, having called games involving Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Kirk Gibson, and Clayton Kershaw over the course of an extraordinary six-decade career. If Scully’s mentor and former partner, Red Barber, was the soft-spoken, southern-accented master of the homely analogy – “This game is tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day” – Scully brings to his work the perspective of a philosopher at ease with the human condition, perhaps first formed by the liberal arts education he received at Fordham University shortly after World War II – “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day. [Pause.] Aren’t we all?”

Vin Scully has lived through tragedies that would have crushed or embittered others: the death of a wife; the death of a son. He openly credits the Catholic faith with which he grew up in the Bronx as his life’s anchor. You can find him on Sunday at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Westlake Village, California, being fed by word and sacrament before he brings a lifetime of learning and that melodious voice into the homes, cars, and ear-buds of millions later in the afternoon, from his post behind the microphone at Chavez Ravine.

Bill Freehan and Vin Scully: two craftsmen, two family men, two gentlemen, two Catholics, both heading into the twilight. They will be missed, above all for the example of decency, nurtured by faith, they set for us all.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash