(CNS photos/Jeff Haynes, Reuters)
By Elizabeth Lowe
Catholic News Service
BALTIMORE (CNS) -- The Baltimore Ravens, who beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in the Super Bowl Feb. 3, are not just tough athletes.
They also have spiritual sides, according to Father Christopher J. Whatley, pastor of St. Mark in Catonsville and Catholic chaplain for the Ravens since 2008 and during the 1996-1998 seasons.
"They slam people around on the football field," Father Whatley said. "When you interact with them, they're nice gentlemen." The priest described Ravens players and coaches as "strong witnesses to the Gospel" and he called their Super Bowl victory "uplifting for the community."
Although his Ravens' gear includes a jacket, hat and a couple of throw pillows, he doesn't cheer for a specific player. "I pull for all of them," he said. "They're all great guys," he told The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese.
He also said he is happy for the Catholic brothers who coached the competing Super Bowl teams: John Harbaugh, coach of the Ravens, and Jim Harbaugh, coach of the 49ers.
"I know both of them," the chaplain said, adding, "They love one another, they truly do. Their ability to compete and maintain fraternal love should be an example of all of us."
Before the Super Bowl, Father Whatley said, he texted John Harbaugh and "told him to just place his trust in God."
The priest noted that John Harbaugh regularly attends Mass along with up to 20 Ravens players and coaches, including center Matt Birk and kicker Justin Tucker.
"The fellows who come to Mass are there faithfully," said Father Whatley, who also sees Harbaugh's parents at Mass -- father Jack and mother Jackie -- when they are in town for a game.
After the Ravens' victory, the Harbaugh brothers, who are only 15 months apart in age, went up to each other in the middle of the field and John, 50, told Jim, 49, he loved him, according to a Washington Post story.
John Harbaugh told the Post that walking across that field "was the toughest moment of all," because he felt "an incredible amount of elation with an incredible amount of devastation. Those two feelings went hand in hand."
Father Whatley and Rod Hairston, another chaplain for the Ravens and founder and senior pastor of Messiah Community Church in Owings Mills, hold their respective services concurrently at a downtown hotel near the stadium before every home game -- Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays or Mondays.
"The fellows who go to Rod's service, most of them will take their Scripture with them," Father Whatley said. "It's important they have some type of prayer. They want to pray beforehand."
Father Whatley delivers the same homily at his parish and for the team, but the Ravens hear an abbreviated version with a tailored message. I don't do anything extraordinary," Father Whatley said. "I do what I do every Sunday and that's share the Gospel with believers ... and how what they do can bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The chaplain, who chipped a tooth playing the sport as a youth in New York, watches Ravens games on TV in the rectory and never misses a second of play.
He wasn't in New Orleans for the Super Bowl because he doesn't travel with the team. He said the team could request a priest or minister, but he is unable to travel with them because it "takes too much time away" from parish responsibilities.
He said parishioners often ask questions about the Ravens.
"It's a great conversation starter with the middle school kids," he said. "They'll ask what they're like."
- Lowe is a reporter for The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese.