Between God and Ground Balls: A Jesuit’s Ministry on the Diamond

By William Bole

July 5, 2017 — On a picture-perfect day for baseball, a 30-something man wearing dark sunglasses is standing in a ground-level dugout, calling out to players in the field. “Okay kid, you got this,” he says to the pitcher for the Boston College Eagles at the start of a home game in mid-May. After a three-up, three-down inning, he strides onto the grass and greets the young men as they return to the dugout, giving them fist-pumps.

It’s what you’d expect from a member of the coaching staff. But Fr. Christopher Calderón, SJ — a newly ordained Jesuit priest who received his Master of Divinity from Boston College last month — isn’t just any member of the staff. Sporting a Roman collar as well as a team cap, he helps the players not with their slugging but their spirits, not with their fielding but their faith.

On June 10, Calderón became “Father Chris” after 11 years of Jesuit formation (a typical training period for those becoming priests in the Catholic Church’s largest religious order). The Los Angeles native was ordained in a ceremony at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, California, together with four other members of the California and Oregon Provinces of the Society of Jesus. But over the past three college baseball seasons, he had already carved out a pastoral ministry — one that bridges the gap between God and ground balls, between the diamond and the deity.

Fr. Calderón (second row, far left) was ordained to the priesthood on June 10.

As chaplain to the Eagles, Fr. Calderón leads the team on bended knee in prayer, in shallow center field, minutes before game time. In that same spot, immediately after most games, he and the players also engage in a Jesuit-style reflection they call “The Three Things” — what they’re grateful for and the feelings and insights they want to bring to the next game. At other moments, sometimes in the dugout or on the team bus, Fr. Calderon will find other openings into the often-complicated spiritual life of a young ballplayer.

Using a familiar expression of Ignatian spirituality, Fr. Calderón said in an interview, “It’s about finding God in all things. God is in the relationships, the teamwork, the struggles, our lives together.” That includes the hard sliders that get thrown at the young men in the batter’s box and in life, he says.

Since he was little, Fr. Calderón wanted to be a priest, but he was drawn to the Society of Jesus in particular while attending Jesuit-sponsored Loyola High School of Los Angeles. What attracted him was the strong sense of community and brotherhood among the Jesuits in residence there, a bond he appreciated as someone who comes from a closely knit extended family.

Fr. Calderón with his mother after his graduation from the University of San Francisco.

After graduating from the University of San Francisco, another Jesuit institution, Fr. Calderón went back to Loyola High School to teach for a year before entering the Society of Jesus as a novice in 2006. He says his mother was initially unenthused about what she saw as losing her oldest of three sons to the Roman Catholic clergy. But the priest recalled that after he returned home one time with Jesuit friends, she told him — “I feel like my family has grown.”

A Spiritual Lesson with a 50-Pound Dumbbell

During the three-year “regency” phase of their formation, Jesuits in training (“scholastics,” they’re called) often teach at a Jesuit high school. Fr. Calderón’s assignment beginning in 2011 was at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. There, he picked up a copy of “The Ignatian Workout: Daily Exercises for a Healthy Faith” (Loyola Press, 2004) by Boston College pastoral theologian Tim Muldoon. Ruminating on the theme, he came up with the idea of a class that combines the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, with real physical workouts at the all-boys school.

One day, Fr. Calderón, who has the lean frame of a shortstop, lowered a 50-pound dumbbell onto the floor in the middle of the classroom. “If you can’t curl this twice, you fail my class,” he recalled telling the startled students.

Given that 50 pounds can be a dicey curl with a dumbbell, he invited the boys to do some problem-solving. One student asked, “Could I use two hands?” That was okay. Another asked, “Could I lighten the load?” That was okay too; the student removed some weight from the sides of the dumbbell. Yet another got help from a classmate. The spiritual lesson was that you can’t always carry a burden by yourself, and you could get hurt if you try. Sometimes you have to ask God and others “to lighten the load,” Fr. Calderón said.

Near the end of regency, Fr. Calderón knew he’d be going to Boston College for the theology phase of Jesuit formation. So he called up a fellow California Province member, Quentin Dupont, who was winding down his studies at Boston College as well as his service as Eagles chaplain. Fr. Calderón asked him what he loved about his time on campus, and Fr. Dupont, who was born and raised in France, replied — “Baseball.”

Fr. Dupont was the team’s first chaplain. Head coach Michael Gambino, a former Eagles infielder who graduated in 1999, said he set up the chaplaincy to help foster the Jesuit mission of caring for the whole person, including the spiritual as well as physical and intellectual dimensions. He added that Fr. Calderón has brought from his Jesuit experience a particular emphasis on brotherhood. “Part of the reason why this team is so closely knit is because of what Chris is doing,” Gambino said. “He’s every bit as much a part of the staff as I am.”

Privileged Space

Fr. Calderón waits patiently for the unplanned, unforced moments when he could help nurture the spirituality of a student athlete.

One such time came during a Sunday morning Mass last month when a team member — with a newly shaved head — sat down next to the not-yet-ordained Jesuit. “I [expletive] hate cancer,” the player whispered to him in the pew. It was, as Fr. Calderón learned, the anniversary of a friend's death from the disease. The young man had also been in touch with his late friend's parents.

That afternoon during the game, Fr. Calderón sat next to him in the dugout. The chaplain did what he tries to do with every team member at the right time — “hold up a mirror to his life," as he puts it. Noting how the student had remained true to his friend and had reached out to the parents, Fr. Calderón told him, "Look at how God is working in your life.” Afterward in an interview, the chaplain said of that brief encounter: "It was privileged space, a sacred moment.”

On May 13, the Eagles won handily at home against Quinnipiac and, right after the last out, trotted into shallow center for “The Three Things.” Fr. Calderón instituted the practice shortly after arriving in Boston in 2014, as a way of helping players examine their situation through the lens of faith and gratitude. In the beginning, their takeaways were not always what the chaplain had in mind. Let’s just say it’s all too easy at game’s end to gloat over a victory or gripe about the opposing team. But soon the young men got into the rhythms of the spiritual exercise.

“Alright boys, what are we grateful for today?” the chaplain asked on that Saturday as they gathered around him. It was mainly in the spirit of a joke that one player yelled out “Home runs,” three of which had been swatted by the team that day. Then, in a less triumphal vein, they called out the real three things: “Moms” (this was Mothers’ Day weekend), “family” (which is how they often speak of the team), and “drive,” as in dedication.

Asked generally about the after-game reflections, Eagles captain and shortstop Johnny Adams said this month by email, “Whether we win or lose, it allows us to find the positives in life and take those with us moving forward.” Adams, who graduated in May with a communications degree and is now pursuing a professional baseball career, added, “It’s cool to see how the lessons Chris teaches us and the game of baseball are so relatable.”

For his part, now-Fr. Calderón will begin pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education leadership across the Charles River at Harvard University — close enough to continue serving as Eagles chaplain. The 33-year-old pictures himself as a principal at a Jesuit high school someday, but said in any event, “I hope I’m always connected to a team and connected to families.”

William Bole is a writer in Boston, working in communications at Boston College's Carroll School of Management.

Photos by John Quackenbos

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