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Nats Mass: New Evangelization for the Baseball Crowd, or Trendy Gimmick?

Mark Stricherz

Mark Stricherz - published on 09/09/14

Sundays not just about down time or favorite team, pastor reminds fans.

WASHINGTON – Over the weekend, the pastor and lay leaders at St. Vincent de Paul parish in southeastern D.C. got wind that a TV crew from the local CBS affiliate would be on handon Sunday. They were thrilled that someone was coming to film the noon Mass.

Kate Abbott, a 20-something volunteer who sings in the choir and helps organize and advertise the Mass by putting fliers on neighborhood cars, put an extra dose of make-up on. Father Andrew “Drew” Royals, the 34-year-old pastor of the church, wore a full-length black cassock. As people filed in to church, they could see no fewer than four different small white pamphlets on a ledge, with headlines like “Why one D.C. church started ‘Nats Mass,’” from The Washington Post, and “#NATSMASS AND THE NEW EVANGELIZATON,” from the blog CatholicVote.org.

“NatsMass” is a liturgy the parish celebrates before each Sunday home game of the Washington Nationals baseball club, whose hulking stadium stands 415 long paces from the church.  It is a Mass for those who want to fulfill their Sunday obligation and take in a game from the local nine, who enjoy a comfortable lead in first place in the National League East and are expected to make a deep run in the playoffs in October. On this particular Sunday, roughly 80 people attended the service, according to Patrick Abbott, an organizer of the Mass (and the husband of Kate Abbott). Two weeks earlier, a similar-sized crowd that was heavily white with a smattering of minorities showed up, many of whom wore red-and-white Nationals uniforms.

After the liturgy ended and the two-person TV crew departed, participants Madonna McGovern and Patricia Espinoza walked out of the church and into the bright sunshine on South Capitol Street, each wearing Nationals gear and singing the praises of Nats Mass. “I loved it. The sermon was very down to earth and simple,” Espinoza, a procurement officer from the Department of Energy who declined to give her age, said. “I’ve had a heck of a time. It’s peaceful to start the day with Mass and relax at the game and enjoy an extra beer or two,” McGovern, a 53-year-old retired worker with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said with a hearty laugh.

The fans’ comments echoed the words of Father Royals, who in an open letter reminded members of his flock that each Sunday they have a duty to honor the greatest victory of all. “Nats Mass reminds us of the obligation we all have to thank God. Sundays are not just about down time, our families, or our favorite team. They’re about remembering the new life we have thanks to Jesus’ own death and resurrection to new life,” he wrote.

Nats Mass was the third of four liturgies at St. Vincent de Paul on Sunday. At the 9:30 a.m. Mass, roughly 130 Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholics came together for Divine Liturgy in the Ge’ez Rite. At the 8 a.m. Mass, a congregation mostly of elderly, black parishioners walked gingerly down the granite steps and into a breezy, cloudy morning. The contrast between those who attend Nats Mass and those who attend the earlier services has not been lost on some black members of the parish.

Two female African American congregants said the parish’s promotion of and the media attention to Nats Mass has left behind black parishioners. One elderly woman highlighted the racial disparity by gesturing to the church inside with her left hand and the black neighborhood with her right. “They doing all this for the white people in here, but what about the people over there?” she asked indignantly. Another elderly woman who said she counts the number of people who attend the 8 a.m. Mass said the Nats Mass was too seasonal to help the parish in the long term. “What happens when the Nats aren’t here?” she asked on two separate occasions.

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