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

Nats Mass sign

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.

Father Royals said the lack of unanimity of support among parishioners for the Nats Mass should not obscure the contributions that black congregants make to the service. “I’d like to say every last person loves the Mass, but we’ve got a strong show of support (among black parishioners). We have gotten help in putting out signs and the BBQ afterwards,” Father Royals said without a characteristic smile on his face in an interview after the Mass.

Holding a Mass that caters to Catholics who possess the disposable income to buy tickets to a sporting event is not new. Despite CatholicVote.org’s suggestion that the Nats Mass is an example of the “New Evangelization,” the provenance of the service is two generations old at least. Cardinal Donald Wuerl used to hold a Mass geared toward fans of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers when he was a young pastor in the western Pennsylvania city.

At the installation of Father Royals as the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul, the priest said the cardinal told him about his success with the Steelers Mass and advised he create a similar Mass for Nationals fans. “Cardinal Wuerl shared with me from the time he was a young pastor that he had a Mass that started after the end of the Steelers games, usually 4:15 p.m.,” Father Royals said.

When told the origins of the Nats Mass were in the old evangelization, he laughed. “The new part is the hash tag, and Kate came up with that,” he said, referring to Kate Abbott, who stood nearby and beamed at the reference.

Few observers dispute that the creation and promotion of Nats Mass has changed the dynamic of the parish. As a church that sits less than 50 yards from a highway whose cars whiz past at all hours, St. Vincent de Paul saw its neighborhoods carved up at the hands of federal urban renewal projects in the 1950s and ’60s. The parish is one of the poorest in the Archdiocese of Washington. It ranked 139th out of 143 parishes in donating money to the Cardinals Appeal last year. Father Royals splits his time between St. Vincent de Paul and St. Benedict the Moor, a parish near RFK stadium, the former home of the Washington Redskins.

St. Vincent de Paul is not the lone struggling parish in the neighborhood that surrounds Nationals Park. Earlier this year, St. Matthew’s Baptist Church was torn down to make way for condominiums. One pile of rubble 15 feet high lies next to two piles of six to eight feet and two mustard-yellow Komatsu tractors on a parcel of land that sits 500 to 600 paces from Nationals Park. One parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul said there were rumors that the parish might be closed.

In this gritty environment, the creation of the Nats Mass provides fresh hope that affluent baseball fans can help revivify the parish. WUSA9, the local CBS affiliate, plans to air a two- or two-and-a-half minute segment on Nats Mass Wednesday or Friday, according to Matt Hall, the executive producer of sports at the station.

Spreading the word about the Nats Mass even more may help. Patricia Espinoza said that despite being a parishioner at St. Dominic’s, a parish less than a mile away from St. Vincent de Paul, she had not heard of the Mass until her friend Madonna McGovern told her about it. McGovern said she struggled to learn more about the Mass online; it was only after she put in three different search terms—“Nationals” “Washington archdiocese” “Mass”that the resident of Alexandria, Va., learned the time and place of the Mass.

Now that McGovern came and saw the Mass for herself, the Nationals season-ticket holder said she would be an evangelist for NatsMass. “I’m contacting all the Catholics I know,” McGovern said with a smile.

Mark Stricherz is based in Washington. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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