Speaking without notes, Fr. Baraniak peppered his remarks with humor. He wore a Packer jacket over his black clerical shirt and Roman collar. He enlisted an audience member to regulate the remote that changed screen images as he stood near a prop scoreboard topped by footballs.
Early on, the Packer chaplain explained that, through baptism, “we are called to have one another’s back” – called to brotherhood. Fr. Baraniak then invited his audience of approximately 15 to “think of the first time one of your sports heroes disappointed you.”
For Fr. Baraniak, that hero was baseball’s all-time leader in base hits, Pete Rose, who was banished from the sport and barred from its Hall of Fame for betting on games.
Rose’s offense seems “pretty tame today,” Fr. Baraniak remarked as images of other sports stars who “bite the dust” and subsequently make “their journey toward reconciliation in the public eye” filled the screen. Depicted were Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger, O.J. Simpson and Tiger Woods, Michael Vick and Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant and Patrick Kane. The speaker recounted the story of Chicago Blackhawk Kane’s fall from grace. In 2009, at age 20, the hockey pro was accused of robbing and beating a cab driver during a fare-related argument. (Kane eventually pled guilty to the non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and was ordered to apologize to the cabbie.)
“‘Thousands of kids … no longer look at him with the eyes of innocence,’” said Fr. Baraniak, quoting a pundit’s written lament. Displaying an image of Kane with a trio of attractive young women, Fr. Baraniak asked, “Is his talent serving him well or is it taking him down a dangerous path?”
The 44-year-old chaplain went on to label Lynn Dickey, Packer quarterback from 1976-1985, as another of his heroes and to cite Batman as a non-athletic role model — young Jimmy Baraniak wore “the outfit” and pretended his bicycle was the Batmobile.
The priest pointed out that Batman, sidekick Robin, and Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent required a “wardrobe” to become superheroes.
“Isn’t that sad?” mused Fr. Baraniak with regard to the notion that one must “lose human identity” in order to achieve greatness.
In reality, Fr. Baraniak said, “God loves us for who we are. I am most perfect when I am not trying to be Brett Favre or the abbot (superior of his Norbertine community) or Mike McCarthy.”
Referencing the holy day honoring the Immaculate Conception earlier in the week, he added that “Mary’s nothingness is God’s everything.”
When he thinks about heroes these days, Fr. Baraniak considers his boyhood in Antigo in the Green Bay Diocese and his pastor, who “gave his heart and soul for the people of God.”
As for athletic heroes, the Norbertine cited several reasons some of them fall – among these the “dangerous zero tolerance” philosophy wherein people demand success even when athletes are mere children — as evidenced by parents hollering at both their kids and coaches – and the reality that certain “players who come from nothing” end up using their newfound wealth in injurious ways.
“In our tradition as Roman Catholics,” Fr. Baraniak said, “it is assumed, as human beings, that we’re going to fall.”
Saints can be considered heroic, but they are also humans “who have made tremendous mistakes, who have fallen any number of times.” Tradition has it that, after Jesus fell beneath the weight of his cross, he was aided by Simon of Cyrene.
“We are all tapped to be Simons,” said Fr. Baraniak, “to help one another to carry the cross.”
The priest concluded by posing the question, “How is God calling each and every one of you to be heroic?” He added, “God is calling you; what is your response? Hopefully, to brotherhood.”
Fr. Baraniak’s audience included players from Brookfield Academy, Marquette, Waukesha West and Slinger high schools.
Mike Lawinger, a Brookfield Academy sophomore and parishioner at St. Anthony, Menomonee Falls, labeled the chaplain’s talk “great,” providing “an eye behind the scenes.”
Fr. Baraniak chatted informally with a number of The Remnant attendees before and after his speech and Lawinger found it “very interesting to talk to Fr. Jim (about) his background and his relationship with the (Packer) players and coaches.”
The Norbertine’s background includes 17 years as a priest, the last seven as pastor of Old St. Joseph’s Church on the St. Norbert College (SNC) campus just outside Green Bay. His part-time Packer chaplaincy has lasted 14 years. He also serves part-time as sacramental minister at the maximum-security Green Bay Correctional Institution, occasionally substitutes as a theology instructor at SNC and is on the board of Catholic Athletes for Christ, the American offshoot of the Vatican’s office for Church and Sports.
— Steve Jozwik contributed to this article