Scoring one for the Lord

Seminarians: The Men in Black play basketball against parish teams with the goal of attracting recruits to the priesthood.

February 01, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

By day they wear Roman collars, pray in chapel and study the tomes of Thomas Aquinas.

By night they don black tank tops and shorts, take to the court and study the works of Michael Jordan.

They are the Men in Black, seminarians who play hoops for Jesus.

About a dozen men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Baltimore formed the basketball team nearly three years ago as a way to attract more men to the priesthood. Their mission is to travel to parishes and show people, particularly young men, that they are just regular guys, in hopes that some will follow in their footsteps.

"Our main purpose is to let people see that seminarians are more than these holy guys on the altar every Sunday," said Martin J. Burnham, 33, who came up with the idea while he was on a 30-day silent retreat. "They are guys who can smack you around on the court."

For sure, these guys are no pushovers. Several are over 6 feet tall, and they are no strangers to gyms. They lost their first game to the varsity team at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex but haven't dropped one since.

They showed their stuff at a recent game at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Sykesville. The Men in Black battled the Good Guys, the co-ed parish team.

After the tip, the Good Guys missed their first shot, an air ball. The Men in Black got the the rebound and pushed the ball up the court. One of them launched a jump shot, hitting nothing but net. Thhe Good Guys didn't score until 4 minutes, 22 seconds remained in the first quarter.

This being basketball, there was plenty of trash talking. The first salvo was fired by the St. Joseph parishioners, who belted out a fight song written by Sister Maura Luffy, ending: "Pray, Men in Black, just pray, you won't be black and blue tonight." (The St. Joe's fans had a curious way of inspiring their team. "Here we come decrepit and glum," they intoned. "We ain't what we used to be.")

Meanwhile, it was getting ugly in the paint.

"You pulled me again, man," a grinning Burnham said to an opponent after he thought he was fouled.

Boos from the crowd

The Men in Black were playing some mean defense, throwing their bodies into the game. Debbe Mork, the parish council secretary, got the ball and tried to take a shot, but Burnham's cousin and fellow seminarian, the goateed Christopher J. Welsh, blocked her. The crowd booed.

The Men in Black tell their opponents that they come not just to win souls, but also to win the game. They warn parishes to field the best team they can. They have declined a few offers.

"Sometimes it's just eighth-grade altar boys, and that's just going to get bloody," said Welsh, 29.

During its second game, the team literally drew blood.

"I think at St. John's Westminster, one of their players got three stitches. He got an elbow above his left eye," Burnham said. "That's certainly not what we go in there for, but the adrenalin starts to pump whenever you're out there. All bets are off when you walk on the court."

Their opponents shouldn't be surprised at the team's hard-nosed approach. The whole purpose of the activity is to show that they're regular guys.

"It's all about shattering illusions," Welsh said. "When you're setting a screen or knocking somebody down, they don't think about you as a choirboy praying all the time."

Keeler offers prayer

It is clear that this is a game with a higher purpose. The pregame festivities featured Cardinal William H. Keeler, the team's spiritual adviser and honorary coach, offering an opening prayer. Two of the seminarians offer their testimony of how they received their call to the priesthood.

"As you can see, I'm 5-4, and as you will soon find out, I don't dribble well, and I don't shoot well. I don't have any business playing in front of this many people," said James L. Sorra, 31, who is in his first year as a seminarian.

The seminary is the last place he thought he would end up, he said.

"Certainly, I'm not the smartest person, I'm not the most deserving person, I'm not the most compassionate person," he said. "Nevertheless, I'm studying to be a priest. And, like my presence at this basketball game, this is a small miracle."

The Men in Black are an example of the many innovative approaches the Roman Catholic Church is devising to attract men to the priesthood. The numbers of priests and seminarians has been declining since the late-1960s.

Although the enterprise has yet to yield any recruits, there's no predicting its long-term effect, said the Rev. James Barker, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"Basically, it's to plant seeds," Barker said. "Just as business uses all kinds of vehicles to promote themselves, we certainly want to promote priesthood in as positive a way as we can."

The seminarians mingle with the parishioners after a game. During halftime, they hold free-throw contests for the youths, who compete for the coveted T-shirt with the Men in Black logo: a basketball wearing a Roman collar and a biretta, the square cap with three ridges on top that some older priests wear.

At St. Joseph's, the Men in Black won over some fans and put another notch in their belt. The Good Guys put up a good fight, but the seminarians led the entire game, winning 54-33 and improving their record to 5-1.

"They've got some ringers out there who are definitely players," said Mark DelGiorno, 37, a St. Joseph parishioner. "They're OK. I'm sure they're going to bless all these bruises later."

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