Priests use sports to encourage others to join priesthood

September 14, 2011

Catholic priests Larry Swink and David Wells returned to Bowie on a recent Sunday, but it wasn’t to deliver a sermon at St. Pius X Church, where Swink served as a priest and Wells conducted his first Mass.

Instead, they took the field Sept. 4 at the Bowie Baysox Stadium — Wells at third base and Swink pitching — as players in the first D.C. Padres baseball game.

The team of priests and seminarians, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, played the Bowie All Stars, a team of about 20 Bowie-area high school and college players, as a way to encourage young men to join the priesthood.

“It allows kids and families to see priests in a fun setting doing everyday things,” said Mary Regan, a 30-year member of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie.

“It makes them approachable,” said Regan, whose son, Kevin Regan, is a priest.

After six competitive innings, the priests won, 5-4, before a crowd of more than 600 enthusiastic fans, most of whom knew the players on both teams personally.

“That was the most fun I’ve had as a priest,” said Swink, 35, who conceived of the Padres as an offshoot of the D.C. ’Hood basketball team, on which he also plays. The team, which represents the Archdiocese of Washington, promotes the priestly vocation.

“My two favorite things — being a priest and playing baseball — all in one day. It was great,” said Swink, a Silver Spring native who is the pastor at Jesus the Divine Word in Huntingtown, Calvert County.

Swink, who played ball for The Heights School in Rockville and later for the University of Dallas, said he envisions at least one annual baseball game for the Padres at Baysox Stadium.

The stadium is familiar territory to Wells, who grew up in Bowie, attending St. Pius X Regional School and later playing third base for DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville.

The Bowie All Stars team was composed of students from Bowie High School and local Catholic high schools, such as DeMatha, Archbishop Spalding in Severn and Gonzaga in the District.

Michael Comer, 15, and Luke Green, 18, both from Bowie, said they enjoyed taking on Swink again, having played touch football with him after youth-group classes at St. Pius X before Swink left for Calvert County in June.

“Most of us know Father Larry, and we were wondering how good he was at baseball,” said Comer, a sophomore at Spalding. “He was good — he struck out a lot of our players.”

At 15, Comer said he believes he’s too young to know whether he wants to be a priest, although he knows some of his peers are interested.

“Kids ask a lot of questions in religion class, like, ‘How do you know if you’ve been called?’ ” he said.

Green also said he didn’t feel drawn to the vocation but knows people who have not ruled out the idea.

“It’s not completely absent in kids my age,” said Green, a freshman at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s County. “I think we’re still young, and a lot are going to college and seeing if it stays with them.”

There are about 250 priests in the Archdiocese of Washington, the Rev. Carter Griffin, vocations director for the archdiocese, said in an e-mail. Many serve in its 140 parishes, and others serve in schools, universities, hospitals and military facilities. Griffin said there is a need for pastors in Washington-area churches, which serve about 600,000 Catholics in the District and Prince George’s, Montgomery, Calvert and Charles counties.

Brie Hall, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said there are 33 parishes in Prince George’s. She was not able to provide information about the number of parishioners.

Also playing for the Padres was the team organizer, the Rev. Larry Young, 42, pastor of Our Lady’s Church in Leonardtown in St. Mary’s. Both Swink and Young had served before at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel.

Swink, Young and Wells are teammates on the D.C. ’Hood team, which sometimes take on the Men in Black — the team that the Archdiocese of Baltimore fields — in exhibition games as a way to interest young men in becoming priests.

Seminarian Shaun Foggo, 34, a Padres player and a Hyattsville native, taught history at DeMatha before deciding years after college to study for the priesthood.

“We need young men to fill our shoes,” he said to the fans Sept. 4. “Do not be afraid if you hear Christ calling you.”

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