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The proud and hope-filled witness of Mike Piazza

Arturo Pardavila III on Flickr -- CC

Max Lindenman - published on 07/27/16

It's the rare Hall of Famer who quotes from a papal encyclical

In the speech marking his induction into Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame, former National League all-star Mike Piazza quoted, of all the things in the world to quote, Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi. “Those who have hope live differently,” he said, with the authority of a 62nd-round draft pick who went on to hit more home runs than any catcher in the history of the sport, including Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench.

There was a time not so long ago when no jock worth his strap would admit to knowing what an encyclical was.  Plenty of ballplayers had faith, of course, and even practiced it, but speaking about it too openly had the feel of ostentation and threatened clubhouse morale. Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew, a Mormon, once remarked that he feared observing LDS prohibitions against drinking and smoking would offend his teammates who drank and smoked.

In fact, from its lambs in cleats, the Church expected little in the way of public witness. It was enough to marry in the Church and, if you were lucky enough to be Babe Ruth, refuse to divorce your wife even after moving in with your mistress. Lavish good works and declarations of faith — Stan Musial’s pilgrimage to Poland and Rome in the company of James Michener, Dom DiMaggio’s endowment of a scholarship fund for St. Anselm College – could be put off till after you’d retired and matured into a gray-headed eminence.

Piazza couldn’t take to evangelizing quickly enough. During a 2002 pilgrimage to Rome, which included an audience with the future St Pope John Paul II, he met veteran sports reporter John Morales and Catholic Exchange editor-in-chief Tom Allen. The three agreed that evangelical Protestants could teach the Church a thing or two about using mass media to link local communities into a nationwide front. As Piazza told Catholic Digest, “We want to say, ‘Hey, we’re a force, and we’re proud to be Catholic.’”

The fruit of their collaboration was the CD Champions of Faith, where Catholic athletes, including Tom Glavine and Craig Biggio, along with Piazza himself, testify to their faith. With its first-rate production values, and the palpable enthusiasm of all participants, Champions makes for good viewing. Yet Piazza’s words “proud” and “force” feel slightly misplaced – better suited to identity politics than spreading the Good News.

In defaulting to that kind of language, Piazza may have proven himself prescient regarding the status of Catholicism in American public life. Just this past week, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a Catholic, as running mate, over the objection of left-leaning party notables like Bernie Sanders, has observers remarking on the Church’s potential strength as a voting bloc.

Kaine speaks warmly about his formation at the hands of Jesuits and has praised Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. Yet as early as 2013 he proclaimed his support for gay marriage, and has just gone on record hoping that the Church will ordain women. He opposes abortion personally, but believes the law should give women the right to choose. The implication seems to be that Catholics, as a political force and an identity group, are: 1) worth appeasing; and 2) appeasable even with an imperfect offering.

Given the congruence of Kaine’s views with the views of most Catholics – not to mention Republican National Convention speaker Peter Thiel’s impatience with “fake culture wars” – those might turn out to be well-placed bets. But if we can’t find perfectly faithful witness in politics, it’d nice to find it somewhere besides the darkest nook of a parish church on Saturday afternoon. Last year after Obergefell, columnist Sally Kohn wished that gay marriage opponents would be “ostracized” from public life. She does not deserve that satisfaction.

So Mike Piazza hit a grand slam the other day when he chose to speak of his Catholic faith. It was a choice made from the heart, for no tangible reward. “Hearing him recite the words of a pope widely misunderstood if not reviled by the secular media should make us feel proud, not in the sinful sense of superbia, but in the more popular sense of “resistant to pressure.” Better, as Benedict intended, it should rekindle our hope.

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Pope Benedict XVISports
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