Catholic education impacted life of Chicago Cubs chaplain Fr. Burke Masters
By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — Fr. Burke Masters is a Catholic convert, played college and minor league baseball, became a priest who currently serves as chaplain of the Chicago Cubs and also saw family members convert to Catholicism.
All of that is possible, he said, because of a Catholic education.
“I often wonder where my life would be today had my parents not sent me to Providence Catholic High School. Who knows? But I thank God that they did, I thank God for my Catholic education. But more importantly (I thank God) for the impact that it’s had on my life, my family’s life, the friends, the strangers, as well as the thousands of people who have been impacted by one simple life who has tried to follow God with his whole heart, mind and soul.”
Fr. Masters was the featured speaker Jan. 27 at the “A Celebration of Catholic Education” dinner at the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa. The event coincided with National Catholic Schools Week and National School Choice Week, plus included new information about the Academics + scholarship program to support students in Archdiocese of Mobile schools.
Fr. Masters also serves in the Diocese of Joliet and is wearing a uniform he never pictured donning as a child.
He was not raised Catholic and focused on a baseball career as a child. At age 7 he attended a Cubs game at fabled Wrigley Field and thought “I’m going to be on that field one day. I dedicated all of my extra time and energy toward that goal.”
When it came time to choose a high school, Fr. Masters said his parents gave him two choices – Providence Catholic or Joliet Catholic – because his parents heard rumblings the nearby public school would close, not because of the Catholic faith.
Fr. Masters chose Providence Catholic, which had a top baseball program, and entered with no knowledge of the Catholic Church.
“I was scared to death,” Fr. Masters said. “I didn’t know the first thing about the Catholic Church.”
But Fr. Masters eventually grew toward the Church and was eventually baptized in the school’s chapel as a high school senior.
“There was this sense of family – the faculty, the coaches, even my classmates cared about me as a person and really invested time,” Fr. Masters said of his years in Catholic school.
Fr. Masters also encouraged educators to avoid watering down the faith.
“Sometimes when you have a mixed environment, you might have students who are not Catholic and sometimes want to skirt around the truth. I can tell you as a non-Catholic I wanted to hear everything you had to teach. The truth drew me in with a capital T.”
Fr. Masters was a college baseball star at Mississippi State and played briefly in the minor leagues. Thoughts of the priesthood still hadn’t crossed his mind and he eyed trying to become a general manager for a Major League baseball team.
He worked for a local minor league baseball team and his girlfriend at the time encouraged them to go to Eucharistic Adoration.
While in Adoration, he heard God ask him to become a priest.
“I thought that’s crazy,” Fr. Masters said. “But if you want this, you have to make this clear. And one by one, friends, family complete strangers would come up to me – ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?’ ” Finally I had to give God a try.
He hasn’t looked back.
He was invited to become chaplain of the Cubs in 2013. As a volunteer, Fr. Masters said he celebrates Mass for 40 to 50 employees and players before each Sunday home game at Wrigley Field and makes himself available for confession or consultation.
Like any good parish, the congregation is diverse.
“It’s so beautiful. I’ve had it where in the front row somebody who sells beer at the game is next to one of the catchers for the Cubs making $10 million a year,” Fr. Masters said. “It’s so clear that the playing surface is level there. Does God care how much money we make or how lofty our job title is?”
Fr. Masters also got a special invite from then-Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who invited him to practice with the team one day during spring training.
“Batting practice starts and I’m talking with Kyle Hendricks, one of the pitchers. As we’re talking, all of a sudden these tears start to flow down my face. I remember that 7-year-old boy who said one day I’m going to be on that field. There I was. It wasn’t Wrigley field but it was a major league spring training complex. It was like God was saying ‘This was your dream to be on this field. Now you’re living my dream as a priest. You get to do it in the major leagues.’
“It really hit me … people think we sacrifice a lot as a priest. But the rewards, the blessings, the graces have been more than 100 times than I could possibly imagine.”
And it was all possible because of a Catholic education.
“It’s only because of one simple decision my parents made for me some 36-37 years ago,” he said.
Those in attendance also heard about the new scholarship granting organization Academics +.
The Alabama Department of Revenue OK’ed the new SGO which provides tax credit scholarships for students enrolled in Archdiocese of Mobile Catholic Schools. Academics + will issue scholarships which grant full tuition and fees up to $8,000 per student per year for eligible students beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
It is the seventh SGO in the state after the Alabama Accountability Act was passed in 2013. About 300 students in Archdiocese of Mobile schools are receiving Alabama Opportunity scholarships, but there is potential to help many more.
According to Academics + Board of Directors member Susan Duffey, only 600 of the 24,000 households in the archdiocese supported Alabama Opportunity scholarships and donations fell $13.8 million short of the $30 million cap.
“We can do better,” Duffey said. “Catholic Schools are the best way to break the cycle of poverty. Nationwide, Catholic schools have the best record closing the achievement gap.”
Those interested in donating tax credits to Academics + cannot choose a specific school to donate to, but are assured it will go to an archdiocesan school.
— For more information, visit aposf.org.