Mass for the Dodgers: Holy Cross’ Father Vincent Kuna on Being a Team Chaplain

vincent-kuna-dodgersFor a few months, we here at Family Theater Productions are playing host to Holy Cross priest Father Vincent Kuna, C.S.C., who also has a background in filmmaking (he even has his own IMDB page).

Father Kuna has a varied history beyond the priesthood and shooting movies, including teaching in Africa and serving as a youth minister. After he leaves us in late November, he’s heading back to his native Illinois to teach at his alma mater, Notre Dame University (a Holy Cross institution).

But Father Kuna also has experience in sports. He played baseball in Little League and high school, and was a top-level competitive swimmer at Notre Dame. His sister was on the cycling team at the University of Colorado Boulder; and his father, who graduated from Northern Illinois University, played baseball in college and in off-season fall leagues.

It was these athletic connections that helped Kuna get a position as one of the chaplains for Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, offering Mass and Confession for Catholic players. Kuna stepped into that position after his predecessor, former Family Theater Productions National Director Father Willy Raymond, C.S.C., was promoted to president of FTP’s parent organization, Holy Cross Family Ministries.

Kuna recently sat down with me to talk about some of the particular challenges of serving this very specialized congregation, which he’s done for the past three seasons.

On what might surprise you about pro athletes:

They’re more humble then you would think. The athletes that have achieved the highest level — I generalize — but those that are playing professionally, you wouldn’t know it if they were working out at the gym, and they didn’t mention that or draw attention to themselves. It’s usually the one that didn’t quite make it that will keep reminding you.

Some of them have specific devotions. I can’t even remember some of them; they’re sometimes that obscure — which is humbling. I should know everything.

On why the quantifiable nature of sports may help to draw athletes to faith (or, as former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk once told me, “This game will bring you to your knees, so you might as well start there.”), and why it may be harder for actors and other performers:

At least in sports, it’s measurable by a time, let’s say, or statistics. Like Usain Bolt is truly the fastest man ever, or like Katie Ledecky is the fastest women’s distance swimmer for the freestyle ever, and you know that. That doesn’t necessarily make you God. It can be humbling to think, “Okay, I can do no better than what I’ve done and there should be something more, something humbling.” In contrast to sports being objective, performers or artists or actors, their measurement is very subjective. We watch someone’s movie now, and we think it’s awesome, even in 5, 10 years from now you might say, “It’s a dated movie,” or, “The actor’s process isn’t really the same as it was. How good, really, was the person?” It’s hard to measure.

It’s harder to be humble, I think, when the measuring stick of evaluation is more subjective.

During the regular season, Mass was offered for players every weekend. There are also various non-Catholic Christian services and others, as part of a service called Baseball Chapel.

Said Kuna:

Baseball teams now have Catholic chaplain, and about 90% of them fall under the auspices of Catholic Athletes for Christ. Each team has a weekend Mass — usually whether that’d be the Saturday vigil, which actually tends the more attended one, because they’re required to show up for batting practices as well, so they’ve got to be at the stadium earlier.

Sunday is one morning where they don’t require batting practice beforehand, so sometimes the guys sleep in. Prior to me coming in the summers, they had a lot more guys coming into the Saturday evening, because they’d already be at the ballpark, but now with the broadcasts, it just makes it easier for us to have access to the room on Sunday mornings. Then again guys tend to sleep in, they might have gone to the Vigil Mass at their home parish the night before.

Although our staff people, now that word is passing, we’re getting more and more of them so we’ll have nearly 20 staff members of the Dodgers come.

Asked if baseball players have special temptations compared to other men their age because of being pro athletes, Kuna said:

There are general temptations for the male population, 20s to 30s — they deal with the same things. Again. it’s heightened because they’re in a public role, and they’re athletic, muscular guys.

Baseball might be a little bit different. I read somewhere that of the four major sports, they all have their temptations, but basketball players may have the most, because their face isn’t obscured by a mask, a cap or helmet.

Fans are right there court side so it provides different challenges. They’re very, very recognizable.

Yeah there are definitely those temptations. I try to address that occasionally in the homilies, make it known that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available, whether that’s going to me or going to their local parish priest

It’s just as important to stay grounded, for them to be prayer every day.

On what sports, especially baseball, have in common with Catholicism:

Football is very Catholic in terms of these guys sacrifice their bodies more than any other sports, where it’s damaging to their health.

Given the ordinary person’s frustrations during the week, they discharge those on something removed from them or foreign to them. It’s done through this gladiatorial arena, which in some sense, they’re willing to be that sacrificial person. That said, it is a very violent sport and un-Catholic in its philosophy in that sense of plowing over the opponent to accomplish a goal.

Baseball would be, I think, a little bit closer, in terms of I always find it to be a little meditative to go to the park. It’s a slower game, with a little more strategy. There’s this sense, also, that it’s timeless. It’s not a running clock like football, hockey or basketball.

Baseball you have three outs but you could rally, seemingly, forever. It’s not necessarily bound by time, which would speak to a God that is not bound by time. Yeah I think in that sense there’s also a sacrificial aspect to it. A sacrificial bunt, or, I’m going to give up my at bat so a runner maybe advance, or maybe score from third base on a sacrifice fly. There are that parts of it.

Catholics, maybe, overemphasize that we’re a family, so it is this team sport, but in each at bat there is an individual aspect to it.

I think that speaks to Catholicism. Yes we’re one big, flawed family but we also have to make individual choices to follow Christ as well, as Christ did His Father’s will. He also had help from the prayers of his mother and the half dozen gathered at the foot of the cross but you’ve got to make an individual decision to follow the will of God.

Here, Kuna is pictured with a tribute to Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres, who took the team to a World Series win vincent-kuna-johnny-podresin 1955. A native of a town in the Adirondack Mountains, Podres died in early 2008 in a hospital in Northern New York State city of in Glens Falls, N.Y.

As Kuna recalls, in the year after Podres was MVP of the World Series:

My dad hit two singles off him in an off-season fall league.

Then the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.

Images: Courtesy Father Vincent Kuna

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