In the state that’s home to the College World Series, a new kind of series came to town on Father’s Day. Priests from two of Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses — the Diocese of Lincoln and the Archdiocese of Omaha — played each other in a softball game Sunday afternoon in an effort to raise awareness for vocations and to honor both spiritual and natural fathers. The game, dubbed the “I-80 Collar Series” (Lincoln and Omaha are just 60 miles apart along Interstate 80), was sponsored by local Catholic radio network, KVSS “Spirit Catholic Radio”. KVSS executive director Jim Carroll told CNA he was inspired to start the series after hearing of a similar game between the priests of the Diocese of Kansas City — St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He said he thought Father’s Day would be the perfect time for a game honoring priests — especially since there usually isn’t a College World Series game that day.
Highlights video courtesy of Father Andrew Heaslip/Diocese of Lincoln
“We said, you know, people are so crazy about sports, it’s the College World Series time, so we thought it would be a great opportunity for the whole family to come out and do something,” he said. “They could recognize their dads, but also our priests as spiritual fathers. So many times we don’t get to see our priests having fun.” Carroll and his staff started by contacting priests who had been involved with the radio show to see if they’d be interested in a game. They asked parishes and Catholic bookstores and restaurants to help sell the tickets. As the day approached, the priests and the staff with KVSS held their breath and prayed that the weather would hold — Nebraska has seen an unseasonable amount of rain as of late. It worked: Sunday turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day, with nearly 7,000 people showing up to fill Werner Park minor-league stadium in Papillion, Neb. Of the 7,000, more than 200 were priests and religious, and around 60 were seminarians. Nine buses, organized by priests, drove in from across the state filled with clerical sports fans. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop emeritus of the Lincoln diocese, threw out the opening pitch. “The energy was just incredible, there were so many families and people there, so it was really neat,” said JD Flynn, director of communications for the Diocese of Lincoln. “Part of building Christian culture is just having fun in a Catholic context, so that’s just what that was.” “The Omaha Storm Chasers usually play at Werner Park - and I would guess it had even more excitement than an Omaha Storm Chasers game,” he added.
Fr. Ryan Lewis, a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, said events such as softball games helps bust the myth of a priest as some kind of ethereal being who’s not fully human. “I think it’s very much in the John Paul II model of priesthood, that the priest is still very much a man, and incarnate, so things like sports and family and faith, that these things are not separate, they all go together,” he said. “I think it just really shows the best face of the priesthood.” Fr. Nicholas Kipper, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, agreed that a softball game showed the humanity of priests in a way that lay people don’t often get to see. “We as priests see ourselves as very human and know we’re very human, but something like this is something that’s attractive to people, because they get to see their priests as regular men or normal men,” he said. Carroll said the priests seemed to enjoy the large audience and made the most of the game as a chance for some funny antics. “One of them started an argument with the umpire, he was kicking dirt at him, another priest came out and put a stole on him and gave him absolution,” he said. “These priests, we’ve got some hams, they were really playing it up.” Cooperation among the dioceses in Nebraska is not uncommon, Flynn observed. The bishops of all three dioceses in the state have collaborated on efforts to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska and to organize rallies for religious freedom. They also often attend events of their neighboring dioceses, such as priestly and diaconate ordinations. The relationships among the dioceses are especially important because so many high school kids end up going to colleges throughout the state that might not be in their home diocese, Fr. Lewis pointed out.
“It’s really helpful for us priests to know each other and to collaborate, because we’ve got a lot of youth from each diocese back and forth,” he said. This might have been the first time, however, that the priests gathered for a purely playful event, observed Fr. Paul Hoesing of the Omaha archdiocese. And although the game was a little lopsided — Lincoln, the red team, defeated the Omaha priests in blue by a sound 31-17 — it was all in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie, Fr. Hoesing added. “Competition aside, any time the brother priests can be together, it’s a gift for the whole Church, and it’s a great service when they can serve the Church together,” he said. “So I’m happy to serve the Church if it means playing ball.” All the money made during the game was split between the vocations offices of the two dioceses, and will go toward tuition for seminarians and to other vocation-promoting events. Carroll said due to popular demand, he’s hoping to make the I-80 Collar Series an annual event that will incorporate the Diocese of Grand Island, as well as dioceses in Iowa that are also along I-80. “All the bishops have said it’s been a really unifying thing having Catholic radio,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about how we can expand this series.'”