MILESTONE IV: Packers VS Buccanneers VS American Pie on Christmas Day, 25 December 1999

It has been nice to see some of our Packer friends attending Mass at Old Saint Joe's. In particular, and in the venerable tradition of Coach Mike Sherman, Coach Mike McCarthy also frequents our Masses because he appreciates the wonderful spirit of our people who gather here week after week. After Mass a couple of weeks ago Coach McCarthy and I had an opportunity to catch up a bit on each other's lives amidst some extra time that is availed out-of-season. At one point in the conversation Coach remarked, "Father Jim, do you remember your Christmas homily back on Christmas in 1999?" I was shocked by the coach's question and the clarity of his memory. In all honesty, I often cannot really remember the topic of my homily one week out! Eight years ago? Amazing! But in all honesty, I remember that particular homily very well; in fact, I think of it often. I share the context of that homiletic moment here as my 4th in a countdown of a five-part series addressing the milestones in my priestly ministry.

Many people are intrigued by my work with the Green Bay Packers -- certainly Catholic media services like diocesan newspapers or national church publications. Even when I would go on the road to preach on vocations or to speak on restorative justice issues, it seems as though the Packers is what people want to know more about -- that tends to be the general topic of choice after one of my presentations.

I'm never sure how I should respond to these questions, because I fear as though I will bore them with my answers! That is not to imply that the work with the Packers is boring -- certainly not. It also does not mean that they find me boring -- at least I hope not! It means simply that the ministry to the Packers is not all that different from my ministry to the students at Saint Norbert College and/or my parishioners at Old Saint Joe's. In actuality, it's not all that different from the work I do at GBCI. Well, perhaps that's a stretch; I tend to stay in nicer places with the Packers than with the inmates!

My ten years with the Packers have been quite rewarding because of their simple goodness and their down-to-earth approachability. That attitude starts from the top: Bob Harlan is a very well-respected administrator because he makes everyone feel important! His goodness is reflected in his love for Madeline and his boys (all products of Norbertine education I might add!). I am sure that Bob's goodness has trickled down to John Jones who has his own unique leadership style that should be fun to watch as it unfolds; but I've come to know JJ as a very good, devout man and friend as well. These guys have tapped incredibly good people with great talent. And yet, things seemed a bit different back in 1999.

Coaches Mike Holmgren, Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy seem to run pretty tight ships. They demand excellence; and from what I can see, they offer excellence. Coach Rhodes' style and philosophy seemed a bit different. A man who was loved and befriended by many, he seems to have had a more 'brotherly' approach with his players. I can't help but think that some may have taken advantage of Coach Rhodes laid back style. That certainly was true as we travelled to Tampa Bay on Christmas Day in 1999. A movie was shown on the flight that seemed to be out of context when compared to other flics we normally watch. Now I am no prude by any stretch of the imagination; but from my perspective this movie seemed to be a bit inappropriate for a flight on one of the holiest days of the year.

I Struggled with the movie that was shown, but I felt as though the movie seemed to be a metaphor for the 'relaxed' atmosphere that was so different from what was experienced in the past. So on the Feast of the Holy Family, 26 December 1999, the very next day, I addressed the issue of the movie -- and the character of the year -- in my homily. Somehow, I thought it would be my last homily with the Packer organization. You see, I was being a bit controversial, or so I felt. The Packers had been -- and continue to be -- extraordinarily kind and generous to me. And now in my third year, I call some of the guys under the carpet. Was I being too sensitive? Did I have the authority to raise such issues? Was it my place to be priest-disciplinarian?

I remember my voice during the homily was shaking as much as my hands. Throughout the remainder of the Mass, I couldn't help but wonder how I would approach -- and be received -- during the exchange of peace. Furthermore, how would we say our characteristic light-hearted good byes after Mass? Only time - bolstered by prayer -- would tell. Jim Nelson, a player for the team back then and Frankie Winters were the first guys to say goodbye. Jim was a pretty rugged player, yet he had a very obvious pastoral spirit. His kindness to me after that Mass put me at ease just a bit -- after Frankie's hug (something he does not readily do, if you've noticed) made me realize that they received my message and seemed to have understood how uncomfortable I was in delivering the homily, and yet how necessary that message might have been -- to deliver and receive. Coach McCarthy's memory of that moment -- now so many years later in the midst of so many other NFL experiences for him since that Christmas Mass --gives me the impression that it was a milestone moment for others as much as it was for me.

Why does this stand out as a top 5 moment in my priestly ministry? Perhaps because of the time, energy, emotion, fear and honesty that went into that Mass. Trust me, it would have been much, much easier to preach a light and fluffy Christmas homily about the baby Jesus nestled in straw and warmed by common beasts, adored by wise men from the East. But I took a chance in taking a stand. Somehow, it all worked out well in the end.

Today similar thoughts run through my mind when I prepare my homilies. As you notice in the Gospels, each pericope for a Sunday Mass involves elements of both affirmation and challenge. So too must a homily! Jesus realizes that the People of God function most healthily when there is a balance of both. Too much affirmation: we can grow cocky, complacent, haughty or despondent to the needs of others. Too much challenge: we can feel beat up, weathered, unappreciated. Christ somehow has a great barometer to know how far to go with the disciples -- how far to go with us -- as he lovingly and tenderly comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable in all of us. The priest, as homilist and teacher, is called to do the same. And yet, some want only to be affirmed, and are even offended by challenge. [Trust me, that's when the phone calls, emails and unsigned letters tend to appear!] Perhaps the key to doing what Christ did -- as I tried to do in Tampa Bay -- is to realize that I am the first one who needs to live up to the expectations that are being preached. If the preacher only stands in judgement, pointing out the specks in others' eyes while disregarding the plank in his own, well, this is a recipe for disaster. But if the preacher can honestly convey that the preacher is not above the law -- and that the challenge is to build up and never to cut down or destroy life, well then perhaps the message will be delivered and received appropriately.

I'm not sure how challenging my homilies are these many years later. It is a bit of my nature to affirm, given my sonship with parents who are professionals at affirming and friends who are so very kind. Affirmation is the easy part for me; I take pride in my ability to honestly affirm others -- I believe I am quick to do so. But as for challenge, I know that I need to strive to 'go deeper' and somehow empower the people I serve to strive to be at their best -- to strive for the perfection that Mary, the Mother of God achieved by simply choosing to be the very good and decent person she was created to be. She seemed to be comfortable with herself; she seemed to say 'yes' to God's plan for her because she believed in God's belief in her. For her, that was enough.

The 4th of 5 milestone moments in priesthood took place while striving for authenticity and honesty -- within a Christmas liturgy celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family. Whether it is among the members of the Packer organization, the inmates at Green Bay Correctional Institution, our students and parishioners at Saint Norbert College and Old Saint Joseph Church or within our own families of origin, I believe that it is our hope to be brothers and sisters in the Lord, united in faith, united in one baptism -- as family. The prayer offered for the Packers that awesome day is a reminder that "God's flock is in your midst!" "Giving it a shepherd's care" on this Good Friday, I offer this prayer for each and every one of you:

Father in heaven, creator of us all,
you ordered the earth to bring forth life
and crowned its goodness by creating the human family.
In history's moment, only when all was ready,
you sent your Son to dwell in time,
obedient to the laws of life in our world.
Teach us the sanctity of human love,
show us the value of family life,
and help us to live in peace with all others
that we may share in your life for ever.

A Blessed and Holy Good Friday to One and All!

Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.


Anonymous said...

I was not there to hear the homily in person, but clearly remember the occasion. After hearing about what transpired at mass that weekend, I knew for sure that Fr. Jim was the right man for the job (I knew it before, but this solidified it for me). Not many people would have the courage to challenge a bunch of NFL players in this way. Most people give these guys "lip service" and tell them what they want to hear. Having the courage to tell them what they NEED to hear is a rare quality. I know how much respect he gained from players and staff that day.

Fr. Jim does the same for all of us in some way through his homilies. So Jim if you ever doubt that you make an impact or still motivate people, rest easy. Sometimes it is a smack you between the eyes wake up call, or just a thought that you find relating to your own life that carries you through the day, making you think a little differently, I always come away with something. And it must be something important if my commute to mass is twice as long as the actual noon mass I attend.

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