Priest professor finds intersection between faith and baseball and incorporates it into his ministry.
Pop quiz: How many priests are also baseball analysts? At least one: Father Humbert Kilanowski, OP, a professor at Providence College, recently joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)—and his passion for baseball and numbers has become an important part of his ministry.
Kilanowski, who was ordained a priest for the Dominican Order in 2018, did not have a career in sports before the priesthood. Instead, he got his doctorate at The Ohio State University in Mathematics, specifically Applied Probability. When he came to Providence College to teach math and statistics, Kilanowski wanted a way to make the theoretical world of math applicable to his students. Years before, he had worked as the statistician for his high school’s baseball team, and he had the idea to build on this previous work.
“When I was looking for a research project, I wanted to find something that would generate interest among the college students,” Kilanowski said, “and we have a lot of baseball fans here.”
Baseball, it turns out, has been a great way to find common ground with students on a college campus. In the fall, Kilanowski will teach a research course called “Sabermetrics: The Mathematical Analysis of Baseball.”
Kilanowski’s research has extended far beyond the classroom. Besides being a member of SABR, he is working this summer on a project for the Cape Cod League, a collegiate summer league where many Major League players got their start.
“The idea with the project is that we have this league where most players are about the same age and same ability,” Kilanowski said, which allows for more clear-cut and standardized data. He is working on a formula for Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a statistic that summarizes how valuable a player is to his team—a project that could have big implications for Sabermetrics.
His project has spiritual implications too. Kilanowski has found that his passion for sports opens the door to connection and friendship, which in turn becomes an opportunity to witness to Christ.
“I often go to games in my Roman collar, and it opens the door to conversation,” he said. “It makes people realize that a priest is not too detached from what’s going on, but is able to be in the world, but not of the world.”
Sports can also offer a relatable way to explain theological concepts: “I’ve been able to use examples from sports in my homilies,” he said, “which appeals to a lot of people.”
Baseball lends itself particularly well to these faith connections, thanks to its liturgical and contemplative nature. Kilanowski offers a fascinating theory of how watching the game can become a religious experience—a kind of theology of baseball.
“When we watch baseball, we step away from the hustle and bustle of the world and recollect ourselves for a bit,” he said. “Our daily lives are so scheduled that we always have our eyes on the clock, but in baseball there is no clock. Watching the game enables us to think outside of time, which can lead us to contemplation of the eternal God.”
Games have a meditative aspect compared to other sports, he said, “because the slower pace gives more time to think about what you’re seeing.”
It’s not only an individual game that offers an opportunity to reflect on our faith. The baseball season as a whole lines up remarkably with the Church calendar and the cycle of seasons.
“Baseball is the most liturgical sport because of how the seasons line up. Spring training begins around Ash Wednesday, and Easter Sunday is close to Opening Day,” Kilanowski said. “I like to say Lent is like spring training for the soul.”
A few weeks into the season, when players are in peak form, echoes the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit strengthened the Apostles with His grace. Finally the baseball season ends with the World Series around All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days, as the year is dying away, he said.
Playing sports, not just watching them, is another opportunity for growing closer to God through hard work. Father Kilanowski referred to St. Paul’s words: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:25). He used that verse in a homily for the Providence College track team, for which he serves as chaplain.
“Any athletic competition gives us the opportunity to go outside ourselves and work for a common goal, for the common good,” he said. “It raises the mind to God to glorify him with our bodies.”
All the good things on God’s earth offer an opportunity to glorify him, and as Father Kilanowski makes clear, the great sport of baseball is no exception. So the next time you’re at the ballpark, take a moment to notice the contemplative aspects of the game, and to offer a prayer of thanks to the God who gives us warm summer nights, cold beer, and baseball.
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