Score One For Faith


Baseball has made a comeback this summer.

No matter whether you're a fan or a casual observer, it's been impossible to keep from getting caught up in the home-run race involving Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. The sports pages and television highlights have been filled daily with their powerful exploits as they both approached and then eclipsed Roger Maris' magic number of 61 home runs in a single season.

In New York City, both professional teams are playing well. The Mets are battling for a wild card playoff berth, while the Yankees are challenging a record of their own. With 104 victories and counting, the Bronx Bombers still have an outside chance at reaching the all-time mark of 116 victories established by the Chicago Cubs in 1906.

Father Edward McMahon, S.J., is a baseball fan who has followed the Yankees' successes from an insider's perspective. For the past two seasons, he has celebrated Sunday Mass at Yankee Stadium for the players. The Masses are part of an outreach known as Catholic Sports Chapel.

Catholic Sports Chapel was formed by a small group including Msgr. John G. Woolsey, pastor of St. John the Martyr parish and co-vicar of East Manhattan, and the Rev. William J. Weber, who has worked as a Yankee chaplain since 1982.

Previously, many Catholic players had worshiped at the ballpark as part of a group which follows a nondenominational Christian approach.

"There was no Catholic ministry to these ballplayers," Msgr. Woolsey said.

Since his responsibilities keep Msgr. Woolsey too busy to celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium on a regular basis, he asked Father McMahon, a retired Navy chaplain who now serves at the VA Hospital on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, to lend a hand. Despite having rooted for the New York Giants over the Yankees during his student days at Xavier High School in Manhattan, the 69-year-old Jesuit priest complied.

There are a good number of Catholics on the Yankee team, including shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Tino Martinez, catcher Jorge Posada and pitcher David Cone, all of whom are regulars at the weekly Mass which is celebrated in a room near the clubhouse after the players have finished batting practice.

The Mass is also open to umpires and team personnel such as coach Jose Cardenal and general manager Brian Cashman, a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The Yankees' success this season is no mystery, according to Father McMahon.

"It's a remarkable group of people," he said. "What strikes me with this team is that there's not one prima donna.

"They all pitch in and take turns being heroes."

Father McMahon, a natural kidder, can't resist mixing some fun with the faith. One day, he joked with Cone about having been a fastball hitter in his youth who would have had no trouble pounding one of the star hurler's pitches. Cone's reply? A giggle, said the priest.

Father McMahon, who is assisted at the stadium by fellow Jesuits, Father Tom Prout of the Loyola School in Manhattan and Father Donald Moore of Fordham University, said he has been approached by visiting players interested in attending Mass at their home stadiums. An organizing committee, still in the formative stages, is trying to expand the ministry of the Catholic Sports Chapel to other baseball teams and eventually professional football, too.

It sounds like a hit to me.