St Isaac Jogues’ new pastor found the priesthood via baseball

By Maureen Callahan

When Fr Burke Masters hit a grand slam in a run-up game to the College World Series of baseball, he hoped his next stop was the MLB. The starting third baseman was 6 for 6. That grand slam was voted the ‘top sports moment’ in Mississippi State University’s history. What else would one assume? What Masters- St. Isaac Jogues’ new pastor- recognized years later, was that the moment belonged to him. The rest of his life, he realized, would belong to God. “When God gave me that grand slam, he knew he had other plans for me,” Masters said. “I’m really grateful I got that moment in time.” Baseball was the conduit that eventually drew him to the priesthood. The path, however, was anything but direct. Masters, the youngest of three sons, was born and raised in Joliet. Though his home life was steeped in Christian values, the Masters family did not attend a particular church.

Masters graduated with honors

The priest remembers being surprised when his father-a United Church of Christ member, and mother, a devout Baptist, encouraged him to attend Providence Catholic High School. Ironically, the school had the best baseball program in the area. As Masters sat with his classmates during school masses, he was mystified at their reverence to a piece of bread. His theology teacher, Sister Margaret Anne, taught that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ. He tried to understand the mystery of communion. The confusion cleared during a retreat junior year. At mass, the celebrating priest had the students gather around the altar for the consecration. As Masters opened his mouth to tell the priest he wasn’t Catholic, he inadvertently received his First Communion! “I really think it was meant to be,” Masters said. “I felt the power of God in that moment.” If life has defining moments, that was Masters’. It led to his life’s vocation.

From early childhood, Masters’ parents had encouraged their sons to learn about various faiths. While they promised to support their boys in whichever church they chose, they still felt their son should pray and study before making any decisions. He began individual instruction with a priest at school. The more he learned, the more Catholicism made sense to him. “May 26, 1985, was the day of my Baptism, Confirmation and also my second Communion,” Masters smiled. An Illinois all-state baseball player, Masters received a scholarship to Mississippi State University. He found himself in an area which is about 2%

“Instead of trying to figure out what to do with your life, ask God what he wants you to do.”

Catholic. At times, he had second-guessed his high-school decision to become Catholic. Ironically, it was in the Bible belt that Masters found assurance of his conversion to Catholicism. Searching for answers, he accepted classmates’ invitations to attend Sunday services at their churches. He then went to mass the same day. Although Masters had great respect for the music and preaching of his friends’ denominations, it was then that all doubts cleared. He realized how drawn he was to the Eucharist. Still, however, the priesthood was nowhere on Masters’ radar.

Having spent three years on second base and senior year on third base, he was enjoying a wildly successful college baseball career. After the grand slam moment, Masters took the next step toward the pros. He signed as a free agent with the White Sox and played in the minor leagues. But it didn’t go as planned. “I played well, but not well enough,” he stated with a smile. “But at least I still get to wear black and white.” His college math degree in hand, Masters accepted an actuarial position with Kemper Insurance in Long Grove. Although the money was good, he was bored. Still chasing a career in baseball, he earned an MA in Sports Administration from The Ohio State University. For four years, Masters worked his way up the ladder with the Kane County Cougars.

Masters’ shining grand slam moment while attending Mississippi State University

Now dating Stephanie, a woman he thought seriously of marrying, an opportunity to negotiate contracts for the Florida Marlins was supposed to have been the next step. “I figured I would marry Stephanie and be a millionaire,” Masters said. “God had other ideas, though.” Every time he prayed, Masters felt God calling him to the priesthood. Although the idea seemed to linger constantly with Masters, he wasn’t totally sold on it. Around that time, Masters noticed that people-those he knew well, but also total strangers- constantly asked him if he had ever considered the religious life. Time spent in eucharistic adoration, a practice to which Stephanie had introduced him, reinforced the idea of the priesthood. “It’s a good place to just listen to God,” said Masters. Torn between the promise of a family and career he was sure he would love on one hand and the religious life on the other, it was Stephanie who helped him answer his call. “She said she couldn’t compete with God,” Masters smiled. They agreed that he would try the seminary ‘for one year.’ The first time Masters walked into Mundelein Seminary, however, any confusion was cleared. “I felt an overwhelming sense of peace,” he reminisced. “Like coming home.”

Masters was ordained in 2002. Now, two decades later, he has never looked back. In his first assignment at St. Mary’s in West Chicago, Masters ministered to a largely Spanish-speaking parish. Four years later, he went to work directly for the Diocese of Joliet as the vocation recruiter. “I thought I would be recruiting baseball players, but I ended up recruiting priests,” he laughed. Although he enjoyed it, Masters felt somewhat disconnected to parish life. He relayed how happy he was to be back in parish work at St. Isaac Jogues. “There’s great energy and excitement here,” Master said. “I hope to encourage parishioners to use the gifts and talents God has given each of us to do his work.” Masters also hopes to revitalize the importance of parish life. He would like to see the parish again become an extension of family life, as it was in times past. As for baseball, it’s further in the outfield of Masters’ life than before, but still present.

Masters and Mike Sweeney, Kansas City Royals, coach a faith-based baseball camp

Each July, he helps coach a faith-based baseball camp with Kansas City Royals hall-of-famer Mike Sweeney, for grade school students. The day begins with mass for the athletes and their families. After lunch, there is time for eucharistic adoration. A decade of the rosary finishes out the day, after which the priests are on the baseball field with the kids running out to them for confession. Masters also stays connected to the game through Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC), an organization that works to promote a Catholic sports culture. He currently serves as the chaplain for the Chicago Cubs. He also celebrates mass for the visiting teams on Chicago Bears home weekends. CAC seeks to combine sports with faith. “Sports is a great way for young people and their parents to get interested in their faith,” Masters believes. The priest also hopes to stress the importance of prayer and listening to God, especially when searching for answers. Masters encourages parents and children to ask God to help them find their path, instead of trying to figure it out themselves. “It’s important to take time to pray and just listen to God,” he said.

Clearly, Masters leads by example.

*Photos courtesy by 726 Visuals and Burke Masters

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